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Bainbridge Island police hold first of two town hall meetings; police talk mental health, staffing challenges, poor community relations

Bainbridge Island police greeted a room full of islanders Thursday with aims to foster a more neighborly persona on the island.

It was the first of two town hall meetings planned by the island's police department, which come in the wake of a $1 million judgement against Bainbridge Island in the police shooting of a mentally ill man and the resignation earlier this month of Jon Fehlman, the city's police chief since 2009.

A crowd of nearly 30, including Councilwoman Anne Blair and Mayor Debbi Lester, were in the audience. Police department officials — Interim Public Safety Director Larry Dickerson, Commander Sue Schultz, Lieutenant Chris Jensen, Detective Trevor Ziemba, Harbor Master Tami Allen and Administrative Coordinator Barbara Burns — sat in a line in front of the crowd and answered questions. Officials also introduced the departments latest goals, which include the completion of a police management study; 40 hours of crisis intervention training for officers; the formation of a senior volunteer group; hiring a new K9 officer; and creation of a school resource officer program.

While the town hall was meant to help repair an ailing relationship between the police department and the community, a majority of comments were marked by praise and appreciation of the police for the job they do.

There was some criticism mixed in, however.

The topic that dominated the discussion throughout the town hall meeting was mental health. How officers deal with incidents where mental illness is a factor was of particular concern, and a familiar one given the recent court ruling against the city in the Ostling shooting tragedy.

Islander Gloria Saylor noted her experience as a social worker on the island and said that there is a high demand for mental health services on Bainbridge.

"Today I had to say to somebody, 'I am full,'" Saylor said. "I had to call someone else to refer them and she was full."

Since the verdict in the Ostling civil rights trial, the police department has decided to put all its officers through Crisis Intervention Training, which includes handling incidents involving substance abuse and mental illness.

In fact, Detective Ziemba was late to the town hall as he was coming from his training class.

"Next year we want everyone on the force through that 40-hour class," said Jensen about the training.

Other topics of discussion were simple explanations of what police do and the challenges they face.

Allen told of her duties as harbor master. Armed with a camera and a "very active" cell phone, she performs vessel checks and can write tickets.

Dickerson also addressed longstanding criticisms of the department to the crowd, and noted officers don't have quotas for writing tickets.

Rather, Dickerson said that he sometimes requires officers to have a set number of contacts a day with the public, including simple greetings and interaction with islanders.

He also told of the challenges the department faces, and said the patrol force currently had only 75 percent of its needed staffing.

Ziemba also noted poor funding as another challenges facing the department.

"Fifty percent of the police department is going to be eligible for retirement next year," Ziemba said.

Shultz followed by saying that it takes approximately $70,000 to get a new recruit fully ready for service, since it takes a couple years to further train new officers and for them to gain valuable field experience.

The relationship between those officers and the community was ultimately of interest to some in the audience.

"Very often people in the community refer to this town as Mayberry," said former downtown businessman said John Hays, referring to the mythical television town made famous in "The Andy Griffith Show."

"When they say that, I think what they are saying is they want to think of the place as a neighborhood and treat the police in a familial kind of way," Hays said. "We know this is not Mayberry, but the community seems to want to know the police as neighbors, but there is also a need for a healthy fear and respect of law enforcement. Where is the balance in that?"

Police officials said a healthy relationship with the community is vital, and said the work ahead includes more training for officers and more input from the community through upcoming surveys. The city also plans to conduct a police management study before hiring a new police chief.

The next town hall meeting is Dec. 2. A location has not yet been determined.

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