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Police department at crossroads

"If the Federal Way Department of Public Safety were a child, it would be leaving infancy and preparing to take its first steps.We were a newborn when Chief (Ron) Wood was here. Now we're a toddler, said police Cmdr. Krista Osborn. We want to try to walk.Police officers say that walk will continue to be guided by the community policing philosophy the department adopted when the city took over public safety duties from King County in October, 1996. It's a philosophy that's influenced everything from the officers hired to the programs created. Unlike traditional policing, where officers simply respond to crimes, community policing aims to find solutions to underlying community problems, therefore reducing the number of individual incidents.Although the philosophy will remain, it's a time of change for the city's largest department. A new chief is expected to be hired by the end of the year. That person's challenge will be building on the department's foundation in these times when cities must do more with less, says City Manager David Moseley, who likely will hire that person by the end of the year.Ron Wood, who was the first police department employee to be hired, resigned in July for reasons he wouldn't disclose. Deputy Chief Tom Chaney is interim police chief. Moseley expects to announce the top four to six candidates for the police chief job this month.The police department's next evolution is important because Federal Way residents consistently rank public safety as one of their top concerns, along with traffic. Also, the new chief will oversee a proposed $14.5 million budget in 2001, which amounts to about 53 percent of the general fund. About half of the city's employees work in the Department of Public Safety.The department's top ranks and those out on the streets every day eagerly await the city manager's decision because the new chief will determine how the department approaches public safety in the future.Police officer Steve O'Niell, who's president of the Federal Way Police Officers' Guild, praises Chaney as a calming influence in the disruptive events of the last few months. But Chaney plans on retiring next year, and officers wonder who will put a stamp on things in the department. We don't have direction. We're on hold for everything, said police officer Chris Tucker, who's vice president of the guild. The sky's the limit. It depends on the chief. We have 104 able-bodied officers. We want to do the best thing.'Tremendous undertaking'In May, 1995, the Federal Way City Council voted to form a police department. Besides controlling costs in the wake of rapidly rising charges from King County, council members cited the desire to introduce community policing, in contrast to the county's more traditional policing strategy. City officials wanted direct control over police service.Officials projected out the rising cost of contracting with King County for police service and believed it would contribute greatly toward breaking the budget completely, said former city manager Ken Nyberg. Costs jumped from $3.8 million in 1990 to $8.2 million just four years later, said Iwen Wang, the city's Management Services director. The county charged the city $150,000 for each additional officer, later lowering that to $90,000 per officer.Nyberg asked King County Sheriff's officials, who have since retired, how to reduce the costs. They said, 'Cut service,' Nyberg said. That was unacceptable to the City Council.But there were, after all, advantages to sticking with King County - namely that the county already had the equipment and the system in place.To build something like that was monumental, Nyberg said. Nyberg tried unsuccessfully for about a year to negotiate a contract with the county that would make financial sense. He remembers a City Council meeting in early 1996 at which he recommended the city continue to contract with King County but require a frequent accounting of how the city's public safety dollars were being spent. Then-councilmember Skip Priest peered down at him with a mixture of surprise and disappointment.(Skip) Priest said to me, 'Mr. Nyberg, you usually make good recommendations. This is not one of them,' he said. He turned to his colleagues, 'I think this is the end of it right now.' They turned to me and said, 'Form a police department.' And he had just 180 days to do it to avoid leaving the city without police service when its contract with King County expired Nov. 16. The city beat the deadline, forming the department in October.But before that, the city faced a tremendous undertaking, Chaney said. Nyberg hired Wood, who was working as chief for the Greeley, Colo., police department, in January, 1996. Next on board were deputy chiefs Tom Chaney and Brian Wilson, both hired in May.Chaney estimates that he and Wilson interviewed 1,200 applicants before the last officer was hired in July, 1997. It was a time of early mornings and late nights, and the undertaking was at times rewarding, at other times tedious, he said.From the beginning, the community policing approach was a focus, emphasized in the job notices, on the applications and in the interviews. Not everyone understood or embraced it.Chaney remembers one applicant who commented that traditional policing would be very effective if the department had enough officers. The applicant referred to community policing as just a PR thing. Chaney tried not to chuckle.That applicant wasn't hired, he said.Because of that community policing focus, the fledgling department attracted an assortment of young officers eager to embrace a more customer-oriented approach to policing and many experienced officers tired of the same-old, same-old.The challenge of forming a new department for a city the size of Federal Way was very rare, Wilson said. The challenge of a start-up agency was what was attractive to a lot of people, said police Cmdr. Dan Coulombe, not having antiquated ideas of law enforcement.Tucker, a self-described proponent of community policing, says he and other officers applied for jobs with the department with the idea they'd be doing innovative things and would have a big say in them.Early 'bumps' However, even before all the officers were hired, tensions existed. King County officers were settled in Federal Way and troubled that they'd either have to apply for a job with the Federal Way department or be moved to another county station. There were some bumps in the road up-front, Chaney said. Some people didn't want to have to move and work elsewhere in the county. But to some King County staff members, those bumps delivered a major jolt. Fewer King County officers than expected applied for Federal Way's new positions and not all of those who did got positions. In February, 1996, some people considered it a politically sensitive issue. Also, some county officers felt they shouldn't have to apply because they'd proven themselves through years of service here.It's too tense at this point. There are too many rumors, too many misunderstandings, said Erin Easterly, a county community services officers in a Feb. 17, 1996 Federal Way News article. O'Niell, who was a King County officer, applied. He liked Federal Way's approach - like the old days when the cop walked the beat - and disagreed with the broad-brush approach of King County administrators back then.They had a rubber stamp for the county, said O'Niell, who's also the president of the officer guild. In 1997, just months after starting up, the Federal Way Department of Public Safety faced more than hurt feelings from county officers - it battled lawsuits.In spring, an inquest ruled a bad heart, not police, were to blame for the death of former prison guard Tama Ava. Ava collapsed and died during an encounter with police in December, 1996, along a West Campus sidewalk. His widow, Masina Ava, was one of several people who filed high-profile damage claims against Federal Way police. The city denied them all and was ultimately vindicated in court.Wilson attributes the rash of lawsuits to the tremendous scrutiny the department was under and a certain amount of testing of the city's and department's resolve. Those early lawsuits caused some officers to want to form a guild, something Wood opposed. The in-custody death of Ava stoked the fires of that fight because officers worried they wouldn't have representation if they were sued. Fear and mistrust reigned in the department.In June 1997, police officers complained to the state Public Employment Relations Commission, alleging Wood and Wilson refused to bargain with the union, adopted rules without their input and blocked their efforts to raise money. PERC certified the guild on March 18, 1997, but as of June the city and guild hadn't begun to negotiate a contract. The guild includes all commissioned officers below the rank of lieutenant.The atmosphere was one of a lot of unknowns, Osborn said. You had a chief saying you really don't need a guild or a union because I will represent you, but you have a state that's been a very strong union state and people are comfortable with that. Mixed reviews These days, ask residents whether the Federal Way Department of Public Safety is doing a better job than King County police and expect wide-ranging answers. While some people praise the department as more responsive, others complain the department isn't doing enough and that individual officers possess bad attitudes that don't concur with the stated community policing philosophy.Often, it boils down to personal encounters with police.Larry Moe, who's lived here since 1974, ranks the Federal Way police an eight on a scale of one to 10, much better than King County.About 12 years ago, Moe saw three men sitting in a car in front of his house. The men stared at the house across the street from Moe and he feared they were casing the place.Moe jotted down their license plate number and told the men that if anything happened to his neighbor's house he'd know who did it. Not long after that, someone broke into the neighbor's house and Moe suspected the three men he'd seen.When he saw a King County officer at the man's house, Moe ran over to give him the license plate number and share his suspicions.He seemed so disinterested like it was such an effort, he said. I knew he wasn't going to follow up. Why get involved? I risk my life and limb and property and you're so disinterested.That wouldn't happen now, under Federal Way's watch, Moe said. He's called 911 to report domestic violence incidents, and Federal Way police have responded within 10 minutes.Bob McKenzie, who moved here in 1982, says Federal Way boasts a police department that can compete with any other in the state -- considering its resources. He appreciates what he perceives as the department's open-door policy to citizens with concerns. The community policing enables residents to have a greater say in the way the police conduct business.The police have a pretty good record, McKenzie said. I don't hear from any naysayers, those who thought we should not do it. They have been summarily silenced.But not all residents agree Federal Way police is doing a better job, and they're not quiet about their concerns.Kathy Melsness called 911 a few years ago to report a neighbor and his brother fighting on her front porch. One man was bleeding, and she told the 911 dispatcher she feared worse injuries unless police intervened. About 45 minutes later, an officer arrived.It took forever and a day. We could have had a dead body by then, Melsness said. I hear this from everybody: Don't call the Federal Way police, they never respond. ... I haven't heard anybody say anything good.Eric Johnson, an 11-year Federal Way resident, got pulled over for a traffic violation while vanpooling. He was asked for proof of insurance, which he didn't have in the van. He later confirmed he didn't need any because King County insures its vans. However, the officer didn't listen to him, he said.No smile. He was adamant of what he wanted, Johnson said. It's like talking to a wall.Johnson's vanpool riders shared their own stories of their dissatisfaction with Federal Way police. Some of them told me they preferred going back to King County, he said.Looking for 'a finisher' But that's not going to happen. Officials point to several strides since King County was at the helm, including higher staffing - 104 commissioned officers compared to 72.5 under King County's reign - and cost savings, Wilson said.Police officers and community advocates say the new chief has a solid foundation on which to build a better police department, but a tight budget to utilize. If police department supporters have any criticism, in fact, it's that the department could use more officers, though that's a decision that would have to be made by the City Council and enacted by Moseley. Based on recent population statistics of 77,000, Federal Way has 1.35 sworn officers per 1,000 residents. Under King County, it was .98 sworn officers per 1,000, Wang said.The department as a whole is very well staffed, as evidenced by the city's declining crime rates, Moseley said. However, he said he recognized a need for more patrol officers.In his budget recommendation for the 2001-02 biennium, Moseley is proposing creating one new officer position, which would focus on crime along Pacific Highway, and converting four existing positions to patrol officers.I believe the patrol is the core of police functions in a community, he said. It's the part of the service that gives people the sense of community when they see an officer patrolling in their community.Chaney says the police department must balance its staffing needs with those of other departments at a time when all of them are very economically staffed.It's a fine balance to match,Chaney said. Hellickson doesn't believe the city is even close to finding that balance. The ratio should be more like 1.8 or 1.9 officers per 1,000, or about 30 more officers - That's the bare minimum, he said.The result of current staffing is that patrol officers face a backlog of less critical calls while they respond to the more serious ones, he said. If a major incident occurs, most of the officers on duty are called to it and pulled away from other areas of the city. We need to take the next step and find the dollars to hire more officers. We're not even close to where we should be, he said..The new police chief faces a major task transforming a young department into a mature one, Hellickson said.We got Ron Wood. He built the department. It's a solid department, Hellickson said. Now it's time to bring in someone who's a finisher, someone who can take it to the next level. "

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