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Bainbridge Island's new police chief joins the force

Incoming Bainbridge Island Police Chief Matthew Hamner has already learned one big lesson about the island.

There's no such thing as a quick trip to the grocery store.

Hamner arrived on Bainbridge late last week with his family, and said he was expecting to use this week easing into his new role as the city's top cop.

Monday marked Hamner's first day on the job, and his official swearing-in ceremony has been planned for June 20 at city hall.

Bainbridge has been very hospitable, Hamner said last week. He discovered that during his first visit to the island — when he came to interview for the vacant post and was selected from a field of five finalists — and it was underscored during a subsequent visit to Bainbridge last month.

"Bainbridge Island has been so welcoming; everybody, from the city government, to the citizens, to the officers and everybody I meet," he said.

Hamner recalled a visit to Town & Country, where a clerk at the Winslow grocery noticed his out-of-state identification. That inspired a discussion about Bainbridge, and it was just what the city's new chief wanted to hear.

Hamner said he's eager to listen, and hopes to have many more such conversations as he forms his vision for the department.

He said he won't have all the answers on the police department's future direction after he walks in the door. Hamner recalled that listen-and-learn-first approach was one he laid out during the interview process for the job, and it was something he shared with the Bainbridge officers he met during his earlier visit.

"When I went through the meet-and-greet with all the officers, they said, 'What's your vision for the police department?'"

He answered the question with a question.

"Do you really want me to have one right now?"

"I said, I want to hear from you; I want to hear from the community. And so I told them, 'You don't want me to have a vision right now,'" Hamner recalled.

"They all looked at me and said, 'You're right.'"

Developing that vision will take time.

"My idea is to meet with the department all, of the officers, and get what they want to expect out of a chief, and get to know them. I've got to have a relationship with the officers and the community," Hamner said.

Still, Hamner said he is aware of the issues that have been front-and-center with the department, and the recent discord in the department. While he has heard from some residents who think highly of the department and its officers, he's also heard criticism that stems from the fatal police shooting of a Bainbridge Island man in 2010.

"When serious things happen, there are always going to be feelings.

"Those are permanent actions," he added. "It's not like I scratch your car and I can paint it.

"It's hard to erase those memories. And officers aren't perfect," he said.

The department has to learn from its mistakes, he said, noting he was encouraged to hear that the shooting had prompted changes in the department.

Hamner said he hoped to build a relationship of trust between police and the community.

"First of all, you have to be a good listener and you have to be emphatic and understanding. And having been involved in communities that had a great distrust of the police and how I overcame those barriers, I think those are similar to the same process that you would use in Bainbridge," he said.

Those things include increasing the level of professionalism, more training for officers, maintaining high expectations of officers, plus good leadership.

"I think  a good leader will steer the ship in the right direction," Hamner said. "I only want to dwell on the past if it helps us learn for the future."

Another priority for the new island chief is to review the recent analysis of the department that was completed by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs through its Loaned Executive Management Assistance Program.

That report, released in March, was highly critical of the lack of administrative oversight within the Bainbridge police department and noted weak leadership at the lieutenant level. The assessment said lieutenants helped create a climate of a lack of discipline within the department, and added that line officers also had a poor view of their supervisors.

The city's new chief comes from Indianapolis, Ind., where he was a lieutenant in the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

Hamner, who worked for that big city department since 1990, said turning in his badge and retiring was a strange experience.

"I didn't expect to turn that in at the age of 47," he said.

He said he would miss the community and the people he worked alongside. Other things, not so much.

"What I won't miss is going to scenes of violent crimes that often," he said.

The Indianapolis area, Hamner noted, typically has more than a hundred murders each year. Last year, there were approximately 110 homicides.

"It's been a great career but it's been a lot of violence," he said.

"The older I get, I look at my younger kids, I don't know if they want to hear dad come home and tell mom about another story. I think that's why I'm so excited to make the change. I feel like there's a much more positive note to focus on," he said.

"I want to focus on some other things. I think Bainbridge is going to give me that opportunity."

One thought kept lingering during his departure from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, he said.

"Wow, I'm really leaving. I'm not going to be a police officer in Indianapolis anymore," he recalled.

"It was surreal. You've worked at the same place for almost 23 years," he said, "and retirement is always such a far way objective that you don't really ponder upon it very often."

Hamner said he had been looking for a change and had been considering a move to the West. It's where his wife is from; she grew up in Utah.

"It was time to move on; I was ready to go. I was ready for a new challenge," he said.

Hamner said he was impressed by the beauty of Bainbridge Island, the low crime rate, and the involvement of islanders in their community.

"Every article I would read would talk about the community involvement, and how concerned the citizens were about the state of their community," he said. "What better place to raise children and to be able to continue my law enforcement career than in a city that has citizens so involved and so concerned. That was very attractive."

Hamner comes from a family with a history of public service.

His father spent almost 20 years in the Air Force and retired as a master sergeant.

Hamner, who has six brothers and five sisters, has a brother who is an elected judge. He also has an older brother who is an Army colonel stationed in Japan, and another brother who is still an officer with Hamner's old department in Indianapolis. Another brother serves in the Air Force in Ohio. Another brother, Hamner recalled, was a police officer for 10 years in Salt Lake City; he died from leukemia, a result of an illness that stemmed from his service in Desert Storm and one that also claimed the life of a daughter.

The new chief has a large family of his own: seven children; three boys, four girls. With one daughter recently graduated from high school in May, three of his children will be in college by August, and four have moved to Bainbridge.

The couple has sold their house in Indiana, a state where Hamner has lived since the second grade.

Hamner said the change was a big step, personally, and he acknowledged it was a sizable step for the city of Bainbridge Island as well.

"I'm very humbled and very honored," he said.

"In my opinion, it's probably one of the most, if not the most, important choice a city will make, and can have long-lasting effects, both good and bad."

Hamner will take his oath of office for the Bainbridge department at a swearing-in ceremony at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 20 at Bainbridge Island City Hall. A reception will immediately follow the swearing-in.

 

 

 

 

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