Tribal member Joseph Somday never wanted to end up on the front page of a newspaper. Usually, that meant you did something wrong if you were a member of law enforcement.
He’s retired now after 33 years on the force, including 16 as undersheriff to Frank Rogers in Okanogan County. Those four terms were the longest for a sheriff and undersheriff in the history of the county.
“It’s definitely something to be proud of,” said Somday, who retired on Dec. 31. “We joked around that it’s always nice to retire without ending on the front page of the paper doing something wrong. All too often, you see people sell out their integrity. If they just sat there for a minute and thought back at how much hard work it took to get where they are, they would think twice about getting themselves in hot water.
“I’m proud of the guys and men and women I worked for. Proud of doing a good job and making the office a success.”
As undersheriff from 2002 to 2018, he spent much of his time in the office.
“Drive a desk instead of a car,” he joked. “It’s largely administrative work.”
Somday shared some insights on what it was like to work under Rogers, and what he did in his administrative role.
“Everybody that knew the sheriff, Frank Rogers, knew that he loved pursuits,” he said. “And so even working with Omak, we had an unwritten rule, that in a pursuit, the last guy in the pursuit had to stay in the city. So it was almost like a pursuit in a pursuit.
“One unit would be in pursuit of the bad guy, and so you wanted to join in the action, so you were trying as best as you could safely to get in that pursuit and not be the last guy out of the city, because you didn’t want to be the last guy stuck watching the city while the other guys were out having fun. A lot of fun things happened on the street. Not a lot of fun things happened in administration. A lot of successes. You’re able to get the money you need to run the office. Get grants to get equipment for the men and women that work for you.”
Something Somday admits he’s lost sleep over was having to fire people.
“You get close to the guys that you work for. And like any organization, people do things they shouldn’t do, and on occasion you get in trouble and we have to go through a disciplinary process,” he said. “And sometimes that disciplinary process leads to termination, and I found myself in that situation a few times of having to terminate a few employees. It’s a tough decision. I lost sleep over it. You know that the decision is going to impact them and their family, but you were also hired to do a job and you have integrity.”
The Lake Roosevelt High School alumnus joined the Okanogan Police Department after a six-year tour in Navy’s advanced electronics field. He had initially hoped to spend his career in the Navy, but couldn’t get over the sea sickness.
He planned ahead while he was still in the Navy, getting ahold of a friend who knew a person in the San Diego County’s sheriff’s office. He did some ride alongs and got the feel for the job before putting in applications near and far.
“The first one to offer was the Okanogan P.D. so I took that,” he said, “and went to Seattle to go complete the academy.”
He anticipated a longer career, but instead found himself quitting around 1988 due to a contract the Okanogan P.D. was developing with Okanogan County for police services.
“Being the lowest man on the pole, last guy hired, I didn’t know if I was going to have a job,” he said. “I didn’t know they would absorb you, so I started testing again — whoever had an opening at the time, because I had a family support. I quit work one day at Okanogan P.D. and went to work the next day at Omak P.D. My entire career was here in Okanogan County.”
Somday was part of the Omak P.D. when officer Mike Marshall was killed in the line of duty in 1998. He described the event as traumatic.
“We were friends,” he said. “I been to his house, helping him on his house. He helped me plumb my house when I bought it. Good guy. I wasn’t on duty that night he got shot. Any time there’s a death like that it affects all the law enforcement community. It’s going to affect everybody there because you’ve touched impacted a lot of lives. So we try to memorialize that every year.”
Several changes occurred in his tenure, starting with the revolver being phased out.
“When we first started, everybody carried a revolver. When you went to the academy, only one guy had an automatic,” he said. “They told him, ‘You go to the end of the range.’ Basically, he shot by himself. The entire academy was geared toward six shots. Reloading six, shooting six, reloading. It was a revolver-based shooting course.
“When we came back, we tried to convince our chief to let us carry semi-automatics. Chiefs were hesitant — again back we’re talking 30 years ago — you could carry semi-automatics if they were double action. Went out and bought a Smith & Wesson double action Model 645 and that’s what I carried. As time progressed, the other agencies were switching to automatics; it was becoming more mainstream. Then went to a single-action Colt 1911 and carried that for the lion’s share of my career.”
At one time, Okanogan County sheriff’s office only had one four-wheel drive vehicle.
“They issued cars,” he said. “You had to drive your patrol car to the county, pick up a four-wheel drive and respond. We worked hard to give all deputies a take-home car, so they can respond from their house.”
Computers replaced typewriters, and other forms of digital inputting did away with hand-written reports.
“Everything changed from paper to electronic over the years,” he said. “People resisted computers. When I started law enforcement, we had type writers. You had an IBM Selectric Typewriter. You had an evidence log, you typed it. You had your daily log, you typed it. You had citations — you stop somebody for speeding or running a stop sign. You have your ticket book you handwrite your ticket.
“Electronic databases came into it,” he added. “A lot of times somebody could do something in Nespelem and you wouldn’t know about it in Omak. Now, we have a centralized database called Spillman. All the local law enforcements agencies participate and they contribute data for that. … It helps law enforcement through the entire county, rather rely on word of mouth. Having that free flow of information has definitely helped law enforcements.
“Nowadays tickets are issued electronically. You can scan the barcode on the driver’s license. It inputs it into the form. You can scan a registration, it populates the form, you print out a ticket for them. So it’s become a lot easier in that respect. Automatic license plate readers. We were getting a grant for that when we left. It’s just a device that mounts on your car and you can have a hot list of stolen cars. You just drive along, the reader reads it. If you pass a car that you have a hit, you can see the driver inside the car. A lot of improvements over the years, so you have to adapt. And there’s still changes happening on a daily basis.”
There was also computer-aided dispatching, “so the dispatcher doesn’t have to say whatever your call is,” he said. “You get a number and they tell you there’s a domestic violence at wherever. They can just put it on an electronic screen and you can see it pop up in your car. You can dispatch yourself to that and there doesn’t have to be that conversation over the air.”
Somday proudly states Okanogan County was the first in the state to become National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) certified. He is also proud of being a tribal member in his position.
“I’m proud to be a tribal member, proud to be an upstanding citizen of Okanogan County, proud of my law enforcement career and I’m very happy that I was able to do a good job for the men and women we served, and the citizens of Okanogan County,” he said. “It would have been nice to go longer. I retired on my 33rd year. Of course when you start, you have goals in mind. I’m going to make it to 20. Then you hit 25. Then 30. At what point do you want to call it quits?
“It’s a young man’s game. You get up there in age obviously you’re not as good of shape as you were when you were younger. So it’s a tough decision. Loved the job, loved what we did. It was a great career. In my mind it was the best career in the world; it was outstanding. It’s just you realize that at some point you have to move on and turn the reins over to somebody else.”
Looking back, Somday said he doesn’t miss the headaches, but he does miss the people.
“The headaches were always money,” he said. “We could always use more cars, newer things. We also understand as an individual office as a whole, we all work together. You had to stay with in your means and work with what you had. At times, it posed some difficult challenges, but we got through those.”