A member of the Pierce County medical examiner's staff scatters ashes of an unclaimed body into Puget Sound. (Courtesy photo)
A member of the Pierce County medical examiner's staff scatters ashes of an unclaimed body into Puget Sound. (Courtesy photo)
By Bruce Dammeier
There are some who equate being professional with dispassionate detachment. Furthermore, there are more who characterize government as uncaring and without regard for individuals. On Aug. 30, I witnessed two occasions where our Pierce County employees’ actions countered both of these assertions. In fact, they demonstrated the highest professionalism, with respect and compassion for our citizens – both living and dead.
Have you ever met sheriff deputy Ed Roberts? If you have, you would not soon forget him. First, he is huge (he barely fits into our Ford Explorer patrol vehicles) and speaks with a distinct Boston accent. He served in the Marine Corps and then with the Special Forces in the Army before joining the Sheriff Department 14 years ago.
Ed is well respected by his fellow deputies and officers alike. Needless to say, he has a strong “command presence” in the field, as well as a sense of humor. Rumor has it that he has run through (not over) a fence while carrying out a foot pursuit.
I was privileged to spend five hours “riding-along” with deputy Roberts and saw a man who epitomized professionalism, but also showed respect and even compassion to the people we encountered – even those he arrested.
Early in the day, we visited a homeless encampment on private property. He verified the background of the five people and told them they were trespassing and needed to leave. However, he also checked carefully to see if one man needed medical assistance and handed out some prepacked meals. Deputy Roberts was clearly not to be trifled with, but also treated each of them with respect, despite the situation.
One man had an outstanding felony warrant from the Department of Corrections and was placed under arrest. Deputy Roberts had a disarming way of dealing with him. He asked the man, “Are you going to run? Because if you are, I need to start stretching.” Message sent and received.
I had an opportunity to engage with the man under arrest as he sat in the back of the patrol vehicle. He was 35 years old, fairly articulate, and appeared in relatively good health. He looked and acted as if he had the potential for a turnaround in his life. He said he wanted to work and earn some money, but he wasn’t willing to give up the drugs to which he had become addicted. He had been arrested more than 11 times in Pierce County – and likely more in Thurston County. The costs of heroin and meth to individuals and our society are devastating.
Later in the morning, we pulled over a 21-year-old man riding a bike illegally and acting suspiciously. I missed all the signals, but nothing got past Ed. As it turns out, the man had likely been using meth that morning and had an outstanding warrant for displaying a weapon. He was arrested and being transported to the Jail by another officer when we got called away to a suspicious death. Notably, after we finished with that call, deputy Roberts went out of his way to return and pick up the man’s bike and drop it off where he had requested. Wow.
I had the honor of joining Dr. Tom Clark and his county medical examiner team to distribute the cremains of some Pierce County residents. Our ME staff professionally processes hundreds of deaths each year, knowing that families and law enforcement depend on them getting their work right. The vast majority of those who died are laid to rest by their loved ones, but not 55 of our citizens. These people had families and friends at some point in their lives, but for some reason they died alone and unwanted.
It was a beautiful sunny day as we boarded the Sheriff Department’s boat, the Mundell, named for deputy Kent Mundell, who we lost in 2009.
As a chaplain from Franciscan Hospice softly read each person’s name aloud and gently rang a small bell, their cremains were respectfully spread across the water of Puget Sound. I opened a bag containing the ashes and knelt on the stern of the boat to bring closure to a person’s life. I thought that this person probably didn’t expect to leave this world in this manner with the assistance of a complete stranger.
I also watched our medical examiner staff and how respectfully they loaded the boxes of cremains onto the boat, and the solemn dignity they afforded each of the deceased – even though the deceased would never know the difference. They were the exact opposite of a dispassionate, uncaring county bureaucrat. They were, without question, professionals committed to demonstrating compassion and respect.
Before I close, I’m also proud of the heroes from Pierce County who didn’t hesitate to put themselves in harm’s way to save a life – including our own sheriff and Department of Emergency Management teams at work as part of the water rescue operations in Texas. I would also encourage you to consider giving to a charity currently helping to save and restore lives in Houston. There are many relief organizations funneling supplies, food and money to Texas.
We have some amazing professionals in the county family doing incredible work with compassion and respect.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier wrote this article for the county’s website.