Dispatches from the Academy – Part I: BI’s top cop talks shop with aspiring citizen grads

Editor’s note: ‘Dispatches from the Academy’ is an ongoing series relating Review reporter Luciano Marano’s experiences as a member of the latest Bainbridge Island Police Department’s Citizen’s Police Academy class. Anyone can apply to attend the periodic program, which gives participants a hands-on look at the function and duties of the BIPD and other local, related agencies. Call 206-842-5211 or email policedept@bainbridgewa.gov for more info about the next academy.

I was going to bring donuts, but I wasn’t sure if that was politically correct.

You have to be careful these days. Plus, it would do me no favors to begin the 12-week Citizen’s Police Academy on the wrong foot. I do live here, after all. And they are cops.

I decided to forgo the donuts, which is not to say I came unarmed (albeit not with any actual weapons because, well, we’d been warned).

“For the duration of the academy, please leave your guns, knives, grenades, and any other weapons at home!” cautioned the official class literature. “The instructors sometimes use volunteers, so we don’t need any ‘accidents.’”

Fair enough, I thought. For now.

Surely throwing bad guys though windows and rooftop gun fights would be addressed in Week Two. Three, at the latest.

So I left home without my arsenal but still swaggered in with two holsters full of silver screen-based knowledge to night No. 1 of class, wherein the students would meet each other and get to pose questions directly to the island’s top cop: BIPD Chief Matthew Hamner.

It’s no secret the department had severe issues prior to Hamner’s arrival several years go, something which he discussed with the class in the same direct, matter-of-fact way he addressed everything else they asked about. Things have, by any conceivable metric, greatly improved ‘round these parts, and he’s not scared to talk frankly with folks and he’s not scared to brag a bit about how far things have come either. Fact is, he’s not scared of much.

A surprisingly cinematic backstory brought Hamner to Bainbridge from the mean streets of Indianapolis, Indiana, where he spent time working undercover, on the SWAT team and even as a bicycle cop (guess which one he liked best?).

I wasn’t worried though, because I’d screened all the classics in the last few weeks to prepare for this: “Dirty Harry,” “Serpico,” “Heat,” “The French Connection” and, of course, “Police Academy.”

Let’s talk cop, I thought. Formalities first, I figured, then surely we’ll get down to discussing the real issues, like decoding cryptic cyphers from brilliant serial killers and practicing our good cop/bad cop routine (dibs on bad cop).

The Q&A began. Here are some highlights. The most burning questions in the minds of my fellow attendees surprised me. They ran the gamut from the subject of complicated departmental collaborations to hyper-local issues to the surprising gravity of three little numbers:

Q: “Why do I have to call 911, even if my police issue is not an emergency? I just can’t make myself do it!”

A: Basically, Hamner explained, though it goes against the grain for many folks not from here, in Kitsap County you must dial 911 to contact a cop even if it’s not an emergency. Such calls are fielded and assigned in Bremerton by the dispatchers at the newly-renamed Kitsap 911 and there is no non-emergency line. Maybe it’s a cost issue? That it’s a staffing issue is the more likely reason, Hamner said, Kitsap County being one of the safest in the state — and Bainbridge being one of the very safest places in the county.

Bottom line: If you need a cop, for any reason, you just gotta dial it.

Q: “How ready is the BIPD for truly violent crime, like a murder, or an active situation like a public shooting?”

A: Very. Though violent crime is rare in Kitsap and especially rare on Bainbridge (the chief could think of only three such incidents in the last few decades), the issue is often discussed and trained for through a collaborative model with other local and state law enforcement agencies. If there would be a murder, a BIPD detective would be our lead in the investigation but they would work with the state police and sheriff’s office personnel, the chief said, who are more experienced.

Lone gunman-type situation? In that case it’s all hands on deck. Other cops come here and we go there to assist, Hamner said. Want proof? Just look at the dramatic response a recent (false) gun report drew at Bainbridge High School. A dozen or so units from Bainbridge, Poulsbo and Kitsap County quickly converged on BHS about a year ago to have the situation fully resolved, the entire school searched and cleared, in 30 minutes — the first cops having arrived on the scene in about 20 seconds. A man suspected of placing the fake call was arrested less than 24 hours later.

Q: “OK. I feel safer. So what are the most common types of crimes on BI?”

A: Property crimes rule the illicit landscape on the Rock, Hamner said. Mail theft, burglaries and car prowls are all more common than we’d like to think. Also traffic incidents, such as reckless, inattentive or DUI-type citations, are regrettably regular issues addressed by officers. Phone scams are continuous problems as well (though they tend to come and go in waves), given the island’s known large contingency of older, affluent citizens.

There are some real problems here regarding teens and booze, Hamner said, and recent studies have shown that island teenagers are more likely to abuse alcohol than many of their peers. It’s not a top priority, though, for the police to go running around hoping to catch kids drinking, he added, despite what some have said. Instead, Hamner and his officers hope to continue to engage concerned parents and create a dialog about the dangers of adolescent substance abuse rather than issue a ton of citations.

That’s not to say they won’t, though (sorry, kids).

Q: “What’s the latest on the new police station? Do the cops have a preferred location?”

A: The new police station has been on ongoing issue on the island for a while, one that everyone sort of agrees on. By that I mean practically nobody says the cops are fine in their current small, outdated building, but there was much contention over the previously proposed spots and island voters ultimately declined to fund the project when it was put to a vote. Hamner praised the city for its consideration and responsiveness through the process thus far and said he’s been working closely with the chosen designer and the city council to ensure the cops get everything they need wherever the new station ends up.

He does have a personal favorite spot among the new front runners, he said, which he will share with the council at the appropriate time.

This, admittedly, was not going the way I’d pictured at all.

It was just so … friendly.

What, I thought, about “High Speed Chase 101?” I signed up hoping to major in “John McClane-nomics.” How will I know when it’s OK to “throw the book out the window” and go “loose cannon” on a situation? What, my mind screamed, would Steven Seagal do?

As things began to wind down for the night I studied the schedule and found solace in my realization that Week Two’s topic was to be “Narcotics” with Detective Scott Weiss.

Rad, I thought later that night as I set out a bright blue T-shirt to wear beneath my white blazer, shined up my Ray-Bans. That’s totally more like it.