Federal Way joins county’s civil disturbance unit

Federal Way will officially join forces with a handful of other King County police jurisdictions to form a civil disturbance unit.

The unit, referred to as the Valley Civil Disturbance Unit (VCDU), has been in existence since at least 2005, but the arrangement is expected to become final through an interlocal cooperative agreement. The unit includes law enforcement from Federal Way, Auburn, Renton, Kent, Tukwila and the Port of Seattle. The team was created with the intention of controlling crowds of unruly patrons and enforcing the law during large-scale demonstrations, such as riots or protests. It results in a higher degree of safety for officers and citizens, improved use of municipal funds and equipment, and better utilization of law enforcement personnel’s expertise and training, according to a Feb. 9 Parks, Recreation, Human Services and Public Safety sub-committee staff report from assistant police chief Andy Hwang.

Members from each of the participating municipalities’ civil disturbance team combine to form one larger regional unit. At least 16 full-time commissioned officers, including a minimum of two sergeants or other first-level supervisors, will be dedicated from each law enforcement agency, according to the staff report. The unit serves the participating jurisdictions, but is also available to outside law enforcement agencies.

Caught by surprise

The need for the VCDU became apparent in the late 1990s, when World Trade Organization protests broke out in Seattle, Federal Way Cmdr. Chris Norman said.

“Regionally, I think the police felt they were underprepared,” he said. “The agencies in the region felt there was a training gap that needed to be filled.”

Now, participating jurisdictions send their own civil disturbance team to an annual 40-hour training camp. The men and women learn to work with equipment, such as bean bag rounds and pepper spray, that could assist them in controlling large crowds, Norman said. They also become familiar with working with individuals outside their specific agency.

The Valley Civil Disturbance Unit responds to situations such as riots, parties, festivals, protests or demonstrations, Norman said. Out-of-control gatherings do not happen routinely, but when they do, they usually strain any single department to try to handle the situation, according to the staff report. Generally, there are just not enough resources within a single department to deal with the scenario, according to the staff report.

“Mass arrest situations are likely to result from the aforementioned disturbances. Participants in this unlawful activity or the tactics they employ will usually out-stretch the resources of any one single agency to effectively and efficiently handle the situation,” according to a draft of the interlocal cooperative agreement.

The VCDU has made a few appearances recently. It was called to the Port of Tacoma’s anti-war demonstrations, Kent’s Cornucopia Days, and most recently Seattle in September 2009. At that time, a large tent city, known as Nicklesville, was evacuated. Law enforcement predicted the situation could become dangerous, but few problems actually took place.

“It’s better to be prepared than unprepared,” Norman said.

Agency governance

An executive board, comprised of the police chief, or a designee, from each participating district governs the regional unit. Each member of the board is a voting member, with equal voting power as all others on the board, according to the interlocal cooperative agreement. Board decisions will be made by majority vote.

Each member jurisdiction will be responsible for its own equipment, training and other budgetary obligations, including maintenance, repair, replacement and supplies, according to the agreement.

In the case that a lawsuit or liability claim arises from the actions of the civil disturbance unit, a decision to proceed to trial or settle the suit will, whenever possible, be made in good faith and ideally be a uniform agreement among all parties. If liability is shared among the jurisdictions, no individual jurisdiction is authorized to enter into a settlement agreement unless agreed upon by all participating municipalities.

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