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Islanders for Collaborative Policing issues report, asks for changes in Bainbridge Island Police Department

The citizens group that was started last year to build trust between Bainbridge Islanders and its police force has released its report on suggestions to reform the police department.

Islanders for Collaborative Policing issued its eight-page report Tuesday, and said the police department could be improved by taking a more collaborative approach with the community, enhanced crisis intervention training, putting officers on bike and foot patrols, and reestablishing a school resource officer.

The department also needs to do a better job of setting goals and objectives and sharing information with the public, the group said.

Islanders for Collaborative Policing was founded in 2011 by Kim Hendrickson, who was fired last year from her job as secretary/chief examiner of the city's civil service commission. Other committee members include Kent Bridwell, a private attorney and former prosecutor; John Hays, a long-time resident and former downtown merchant; former city councilwoman Debbie Vann; Scott Anderson, a former Bainbridge police officer who has publicly called for the removal of the police chief; and Tami Ostling, whose brother was killed by Bainbridge police responding to a 911 call in October 2010.

The report noted what is sees as a sour relationship between residents and the Bainbridge Island Police Department, and the group pointed to an unscientific online survey conducted by Islanders for Collaborative Policing in March that found respondents did not trust the police department.

Islanders for Collaborative Policing disbanded Aug. 23.

Hays, the group's former spokesman, said the work of the committee was worthy.

"I think it was a great exercise in real American, grassroots democracy — that people in a community can come together and even though they don't agree on everything, they can devise some ways to make the community a better place. And without being an official government deal," Hays said.

The group was formed without the consent of the city. But Hays said, as a resident, he has a great interest in how the police department is run.

"I live here; this is my neighborhood. I love this town. I want this to be a good place to live for now and into the future," he said.

Interim City Manager Morgan Smith did not wish to comment on the report.

Instead, Smith referred to the police department's official response to Islanders for Collaborative Policing.

In an Aug. 23 memo from Interim Public Safety Director Larry Dickerson and Police Commander Susan Shultz, the pair said the suggestions raised by the group were ideas that had already been implemented or were already being pursued by the department.

"The [Bainbridge Island Police Department] is already committed to community-oriented proactive policing and has expressed this publicly," the pair said in the memo.

"Our department currently has a list of more than 70 goals and objectives, several of which have been identified as top priorities and have been publicized. When the goals (both short and long-term) have been evaluated and prioritized, they will comprise our work plan — a polished product that we fully intend to make public," they wrote.

Dickerson and Shultz also noted in the memo that they had been given the report in early August, but were asked to keep it secret.

They also criticized the tone of the report.

"While we are discouraged by what we perceive to be the overtly negative connotations set forth in this document, we wish to be responsive to some of the thoughtful suggestions brought forth by the group. We are always looking for ways to improve, as any good service organization does," they concluded.

Islanders for Collaborative Policing has maintained from its inception that the police department has a shaky reputation with the public that it serves.

That notion was underscored in the report with its recount of the online survey results presented by the group in March, as the city prepared to defend itself against a federal lawsuit from an officer-involved shooting that left a mentally ill Bainbridge Island man dead.

While the survey found widespread distrust of the police department, respondents to the poll also said the focus on the force was overblown, led by "politically motivated and pretentious" islanders and a small group that wanted to "malign and discredit the police."

Hays said the attendance at the early meetings of Islanders for Collaborative Policing, and its online survey, points to a bad relationship between island residents and their police department.

"It seems there has been and is a kind of a dysfunctional relationship with the citizens of the island and their police department," he said.

It's something he's heard time and again at cocktail parties and other gatherings, he said. When the conversation turns to the police, people seldom have good things to say.

"That just seems wrong to me," Hays said.

"When you need a police officer, nothing else will do. If you do need a police officer, you want to be confident that the situation will be handled correctly," he said.

"It just doesn't seem to be that way," Hays said.

Hays said residents' unfavorable opinion of the Bainbridge Police Department predates the Ostling tragedy, where a mentally ill man was shot and killed by a Bainbridge officer when he met police at his door with an ax after they came to his home to investigate a 911 call in October 2010. The Ostling family later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and won a $1 million judgement earlier this year.

"I think the Ostling [case] has brought some things to a head. I believe that it's been there for quite a while and it precedes the Ostling case," Hays said of the sour relationship.

He echoed the theme raised by those who attended the committee's early meetings, that the focus of enforcement efforts was misguided.

Hays said police should focus on violations of drug laws, rather than waiting to catch speeding drivers in low-traffic areas at night.

"It just feels like the emphasis needs to be placed on other things," Hays said.

Others who have been involved with Islanders for Collaborative Policing have said police spend too much time targeting teen behavior. That complaint was echoed in the committee's report.

"Anecdotal evidence suggests a high level of distrust between island youth and island officers. This distrust is too often expressed by local parents, many of whom seem to believe that officers are 'out to get' their kids and/or are more interested in arrests than education or prevention," the report states.

"Such antipathy invites difficulties. After a near‐fatal accident in August 2011 involving island teenagers, it took officers three hours to obtain the name of a critically injured passenger because the others were unwilling to share information," the report continued.

"We know that we have a drug trade on the island, in many cases is supported by otherwise responsible adults, and yet we don't often hear of the drug busts," Hays said.

"Sometimes we hear frustration in the voice of our officers when they go to a home where alcohol is being served by responsible adults, not only to their children but to their children's friends, and they don't get support. They don't feel like the community will support them."

When asked how restarting the program to have a school resource officer could change the culture of teens who are unwilling to turn in their fellow teens for illegal activity, or parents who are reluctant to assist police when their own children may be involved in crimes, Hays said the program would bear results over time.

Grant funding, he said, could pay for the costs and the city and community could have as much as three years to determine the value of the program.

While the police department was supportive of the idea for a school resource officer, officials noted that "reducing underage drinking and drug use is one of the [department's] most important goals, and has been expressed publicly," according to the city's memo in response to the report.

While the report from Islanders for Collaborative Policing also said the group was investigating the possibility of changing the city's "minor in possession" law from a criminal charge to a civil infraction, that idea drew a tepid response from police officials.

Dickerson and Shultz said they strongly disagreed with the suggestion.

"Criminal charges are a proven deterrent to drug and alcohol use and are pivotal in reducing teen fatalities due to DUI," they said. "We believe that young people need to be held accountable for criminal behavior."

Police officials also discounted the call from the committee for the creation of an independent advisory board that would review complaints from citizens and officers.

Dickerson and Shultz said citizens have a myriad of ways to lodge complaints, and said they can always contact another local, state or federal agency if they did not want to share those concerns with the Bainbridge department.

Hays said the group will revisit its recommendations in a month and advise the community on any changes that have been made because of the report.

Hays said the report was not meant to give police their marching orders.

"We're not trying to tell the police department how to do its job," he said.

"What we're after is collaboration," Hays said.

 

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