City action to mend police, public relations

New effort seeks community feedback. The city is currently planning to engage the island community in an effort to improve wavering relations between citizens and the Bainbridge Island Police Department.

The city is currently planning to engage the island community in an effort to improve wavering relations between citizens and the Bainbridge Island Police Department.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Police Chief Jon Fehlman. “Let’s take a look and see were we can improve but also acknowledge where we are doing well.”

In September, council members Kirsten Hytopoulos, Bob Scales and Kim Brackett formed an ad hoc committee charged with tackling issues surrounding community and police relations. The committee has formed a plan to not only provide understanding, but also to identify a course of action to help mend the damage to community and police relations. It is the culmination of a long-term effort by the council.

“This isn’t a recent thing,” Hytopoulos said. “The council has been talking about this since spring of 2010… we’re taking the bull by the horns right now.”

The effort is in its early stages of organization but should begin within the next two months. The ad hoc committee will have to provide specific costs that will required council approval. The costs will included a phone survey that will randomly select island citizens to interview, as well as developing focus groups to gain public feedback. Any resident on the island will have the opportunity to sign up for the focus groups.

A professional evaluator will be hired to take part in the meetings as well as to interpret the results of the phone survey. In the end, the goal is to have recommendations to act upon.

“It’s a rumbling in the community that has gone on long enough that it needs to be addressed,” Hytopoulos said.

She said that there has been a mistrust of the police in the public conversation for some time. It was severe enough to prompt the council to create the ad hoc committee in the first place.

“What I’d really like to hear are specifics,” Fehlman said. “It’s tough to talk about the perceptions, if I don’t have a specific incident to talk about with the troops.”

The effort comes in the wake of an October report by Sam Pailca, the former Seattle director of the Office of Professional Accountability. Her report reviewed the policies and procedures of the police department regarding citizen complaints, but addressed only matters of police procedure.

“I believe you never stop trying to get better,” Fehlman said. “Ms. Pailca points out things we need to do better in our system and I agree. At the same time I have to be sensitive and can’t arbitrarily change working conditions, but there are some good recommendations here and we will see what we can do.”

The report noted weaknesses with the intake and classification of public complaints, problems with investigations procedure and the overall sophistication of internal investigations.

“I think there are some issues that need to be investigated further to see if she is on the right track,” said Scott Weiss, president of the Police Guild. “(But) I think the Guild would want to work with the city on any room for improvement that is there.”

The Pailca report offered a number of recommendations for the city to consider implementing, one of which was that the city seek community feedback while planning its next steps. Hytopoulos said that community feedback is exactly what the city seeks, but would like it to go further toward solutions.

It’s got to be, ‘we hear you, we’ve got it interpreted and these are the steps we can take,’” Hytopoulos said.” The goal is deliverable action.”