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Bainbridge police chief looks back on first year

Bainbridge Police Chief Matthew Hamner explains the improvements and changes the department has undergone in the past year during a press conference Wednesday. - Cecilia Garza | Bainbridge Island Review
Bainbridge Police Chief Matthew Hamner explains the improvements and changes the department has undergone in the past year during a press conference Wednesday.
— image credit: Cecilia Garza | Bainbridge Island Review

Despite having one of the smallest departments in Washington and being down four officers in recent months, Bainbridge Island Police Chief Matthew Hamner’s first year has included everything from improved training and policies to countless community outreach events to restoring the department’s depleted roster.

In other words, nothing short of success.

“I’m a big believer in servant leadership,” Hamner said.

“When you serve the people who work for you and the citizens, you get the support. I am overwhelmed by the support that I have received this first year from the community.”

Hamner was sworn in as Bainbridge’s chief of police June 20, 2013.

He arrived after several tumultuous years of forced resignations and internal investigations at the department, a collapse that began in 2010 when a mentally ill man was shot and killed by Bainbridge officers in his home.

Leader with a message

Hamner, however, began his work with a singular message, “You can’t drive forward while looking in the rearview mirror.”

So far, it’s been an effective maxim.

To start, the Bainbridge police department has 20 high school students who will form a youth advisory group come the fall.

The group will work with officers to increase positive relationships between police and school-age islanders.

Meanwhile, a citizen advisory group made up of 10 community leaders is actively working now to chart the future of the department.

Dubbed the Criteria Development Group, the members are currently evaluating whether the department should institute a citizen review board to assess police internal affairs and complaints, advise on key issues and assist in community outreach efforts.

Hamner said the group will announce their recommendations July 21.

“That, to me, sends a message that we’re looking at ways to be as accountable and transparent as we can be,” Hamner said.

The department is likewise revising the ways it documents officers’ use of force while on duty.

The department is also in the process of acquiring a model policy to negotiate with the Bainbridge Island Police Guild that would require officers to wear a body camera while on-duty.

While many opt to, officers are not currently required to wear their cameras.

In addition, the department is in the process of trading their current body cameras for cameras with low-light capability.

“It keeps everybody honest,” Hamner said.

“It keeps everybody on a level playing field. Not only that, I think it raises the credibility of the department as a whole.”

Ready and able

Along with transparency improvements, upgrades are in store for the department.

With any summer there comes more vacation time, more overtime and different community needs.

To set the wheels turning for a productive summer, Hamner said that all of Bainbridge’s officers have completed their 2014 training early.

A new bicycle program is well on its way, as well.

Earlier this year, the city of Bainbridge received a grant of more than $5,500 from the Suquamish Tribe to supplement city funds for police bicycles.

The department now has 11 Trek bikes and five officers trained to use them.

Bicycle training, Hamner said, includes everything from dismounting quickly to riding down a flight of stairs to using the bike as a defensive weapon.

All hands on deck

Another priority, Hamner said, is to fill the department’s open positions and get more hands on deck.

“We are doing it very judiciously, but obviously as quickly as possible,” Hamner said.

Short four officers, the Bainbridge police have been pulling many overtime hours in the last few months as the department shed some of its most veteran officers.

In March, Lieutenant Phil Hawkins retired from the department, and was closely followed by both Lieutenant Christopher Jensen and Officer Steve Cain, who announced their plans to retire in May.

The three had all been with the department for more than 20 years.

Prior to Hamner’s tenure, an additional officer position was left open.

The department currently has 15 out of the 19 available positions filled.

In the last week, though, the chief has submitted two conditional offers to applicants interested in officer positions.

During the hiring process, Hamner explained, he made sure to include questions that were brought up in a public meeting earlier this year where citizens gave input on what characteristics they’d like to see in officers at the department.

“We have specifically not made offers to individuals we don’t think would be a good fit for Bainbridge Island,” Hamner said.

“Just because there’s a necessity, I don’t want that to override hiring the right person. We know how badly that can go.”

Hamner recalled that people wanted to know his vision for the department on day one.

What he said then was that he needed time to figure out where the department is and where it needs to go.

Now, with the work that’s been done in the past year, Hamner said it’s clear the mission for the department is to build and keep a relationship with the community so residents know they’re well-served by their police department and they live in a safe city they can enjoy.

“My vision is to have a department that is state-accredited, professional, accountable and transparent,” Hamner said.

“When police departments don’t have those characteristics, there is a lack of trust in the community they serve.

“It’s the way it is. So we need to make sure that we’re doing those things,” he said.

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