Sunday, August 3, 2014

Oversight Ordinance Introduced and Pulled: What Happened?

Since 2012, Islanders for Collaborative Policing has been urging the creation of a police oversight group on Bainbridge Island. Our belief is that an independent oversight group will promote community trust in the Bainbridge Island Police Department. The founding of an oversight group was among the principal recommendations of Police consultant, Michael Pendleton, in his 2013 city-commissioned report. Every candidate running for public office on Bainbridge in 2013 expressed support for this concept. Likewise, favorable comments for the idea have been voiced by our Chief of Police, the City Manger and the Police Guild.

A proposed ordinance to create a “Police Citizen Advisory Board” was introduced to City Council on Monday night. It then pulled, by the City Manager, partly in light of our objections. What happened?

The proposed ordinance has many problems, but here are the most significant.

All of the Board’s duties are defined as reactive, initiated by complaints about police actions or conduct. In other words, the Board would have no proactive role. Its members would not be authorized to ask their own questions about police policies or procedures, or conduct their own policy discussions.

The Board’s function would be to “investigate” such complaints, but it is not provided with its own professional staff to assist it. Nor would the Board enjoy any real independence in carrying out its investigative role. The investigation of police complaints is an activity requiring both skill and experience. If volunteer citizens are to be involved in the complaint process, we’d rather see them have an auditing role.

Lastly, the proposed ordinance creates a number of procedural obstacles that will hinder and discourage people who wish to lodge complaints. There is a short time limit to file a complaint. There are no provisions for anonymous or third party complaints. Complaints can not be filed by people who are taking civil action against the department, and/or who are subject to criminal charges.

During Monday’s discussion, several Councilmembers brought up their own concerns, including the lack of any requirement that the new Board report to City Council (or, we might add, to the public).

ICP supports a Citizen Advisory Board that has broad authority to consider police policies and practice. It should encourage community feedback, rather than making it difficult. If this Board has the authority to investigate or review complaints, it must have the resources to do so in a professional, independent way. 

ICP has always envisioned an oversight entity whose charter is to focus on the continuous improvement of our police services and proactively suggest solutions to identified problems. We hope a modified ordinance comes back to Council quickly. And we hope Council will continue to move things forward in the right direction.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Prosecutor Candidates Talk Mental Illness

Does the Kitsap prosecutor have a role to play in the county’s mental and behavioral health system? Yes, and it’s significant. We know, from talking to Kitsap police officers, that encounters between police and people suffering from mental illness and/or substance abuse are depressingly frequent. When dealing with a low-level arrest, the prosecutor has tremendous discretion in deciding how to handle the case so as to achieve the best possible result for those concerned; the police, the courts, the jails, the person arrested and the public. Essentially, this involves choosing whether to pursue punishment or treatment.

Because such decisions are so important, Islanders for Collaborative Policing and NAMI-Kitsap co-hosted a forum on July 17 to hear from candidates for the office of prosecutor. The candidates were asked to talk about issues concerning criminal justice, mental illness, and drug dependency. Over fifty people attended, including judges, city councilmembers, and police chiefs. Interestingly, of the questions and comments voiced by attendees, nearly all were on the topic of mental illness. There is clearly a great deal of community interest in how the prosecutor’s office can impact and improve the system for dealing with these problems.

Specifics. Each of the candidates—incumbent Russ Hauge and challengers Bruce Danielson, Tina Robinson, and Bob Scales—agreed that there are serious flaws in the way mentally ill people are handled in the criminal justice system. Three of the candidates—Hauge, Robinson and Scales—suggested that there has been too much of an emphasis on criminalization, and that more and better use of treatment/diversion options are needed. (According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, the number of seriously mentally ill people in prison and jail, nationwide, exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals ten-fold.)

Russ Hauge stated, unequivocally, that there are too many mentally ill people in jail. He mentioned his efforts to divert low-level drug addicts from jail to treatment, explaining “we can’t arrest our way [out of dealing with behavioral problems].” He discussed his enthusiastic support of a new crisis triage center (funded by the MIDD tax) as an alternative to incarceration. He stressed his strong relationship with law enforcement, his support of the new crisis intervention officer program, and the need for more sharing of information among police agencies and personnel to improve their response to people in crisis. He also supports state legislation that would shield some personal information in police databases from public record requests.

Bruce Danielson articulated his belief that increased police training and dedicated staff at the prosecutors’ office are needed for better mental health response. He suggested that adequate systems and services are already in place to properly handle mentally ill defendants, but are not being effectively utilized. He expressed doubts about the utility of either specialized courts or information sharing by law enforcement to better deal with criminal behavior associated with mental health problems.

Tina Robinson said she has “more questions than answers” regarding mental health issues, but assures that she’s committed to working with agencies serving the mentally ill, as well as their parents and caregivers. She expressed concern about neighborhoods being “terrorized” by mentally ill individuals. She also expressed an interest in seeing more treatment options made available, such as civil commitment laws that would lower the threshold for mandatory treatment. She supports the creation of a court advocate to assist defendants with mental health issues, similar to existing domestic violence advocates.

Bob Scales talked about his support for a pre-booking diversion program in Seattle (called LEAD), and suggested it could be a model for working with people with behavioral health problems in Kitsap County. (LEAD is a privately funded program that allows police to redirect low-level drug offenders to community-based services instead of jail and prosecution.) He described the prosecutor’s role as an advocate who “breaks down barriers” and pledged to promote private/public partnerships around mental health issues. He also mentioned his interest in crime prevention, citing his support for a state law banning gun possession by people who have previously been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.

ICP is not endorsing any of the candidates at this point, but we are watching the race with considerable interest. We will follow up with more specific questions for remaining candidates after the primary election.

Monday, July 14, 2014

July Events

Mark your calendars for two events this month that will explore how law enforcement can best respond when dealing with issues of mental illness in the community. This Thursday, July 17, ICP and NAMI-Kitsap are holding a pre-election forum at the Bainbridge Island Waterfront Center (370 Brien Drive) featuring all four candidates for County Prosecutor. Event time 5pm to 6:30pm. The focus of this event is on how people afflicted with mental health and drug dependency issues are handled in the criminal justice system-and how the prosecutor can improve outcomes in this area. (If you miss this event, a second forum for prosecutor candidates organized by the municipal court will be held on July 29.) 

The second program will be a public introduction to the new Crisis Intervention Officers appointed throughout Kitsap County.   This event will be held at Poulsbo City Hall on Wednesday, July 30, from 3:00 to 4:30 pm., and is jointly sponsored by ICP, NAMI-Kitsap, the Bremerton Police Department, the Poulsbo Police Department, and the Kitsap Vulnerable Adult Task Force.  ICP has been working with Kitsap law enforcement for some time to get this program off the ground, and we are very pleased to be a part of this public introduction.  The new CIO's will talk about crisis response, community partnerships, and how police response to mental illness is being coordinated across the County.

Good Developments, Unfinished Business

It's been a year now since Matt Hamner became the Chief of BIPD, and local papers have done a great job highlighting his successes. Much praise is due to the Chief for his assigning priority to community relations, and we're particularly pleased that he has reinvigorated the bike patrol program, worked with the Civil Service Commission to improve the police hiring process, emphasized youth outreach, and has joined other Kitsap County police departments by appointing a crisis intervention officer. These advances are all in keeping with ideas and recommendations that ICP has been advocating since its inception.

Two years ago, ICP assembled a group of citizens to discuss a history of poor relations between our community and police department, and to develop ideas for alleviating this problem.  It is most gratifying to see so many of our recommendations now being realized. We wish to thank the many people who participated in our "Citizens' Committee" and who contributed so much toward shaping the positive changes we now are seeing.  

ICP's current focus is to assist Chief Hamner with a few items of unfinished business.  Paramount among these is the creation of a civilian police commission to compliment police reforms and improved police/community relations. There is, at the moment, no public forum where community members can comment on police services or make suggestions for improvement. There is no forum where our representatives on council can consider and investigate police policy ideas. ICP thinks this kind of city committee is essential for the long term success of the BIPD, along with improvements to the BIPD's complaint processing system. The topic will be taken up by City Council on July 28.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

ICP Hosts Poulsbo PD's Dave Shurick: What's a Crisis Intervention Officer?

On October 28, ICP's mental health working group hosted Poulsbo Officer Dave Shurick, who explained his work as a crisis intervention officer.

A few highlights from the meeting:

-Local NAMI representatives are eager to work with the BIPD to create and support a crisis intervention officer position. They invited BIPD officers--and members of the interested public--to participate in the 12-week family to family class being held in Silverdale February 1-April 19 (Contact Jeanette for details at jcrerecich@yahoo.com).

-Bainbridge Chief Hamner welcomes input about the creation of a crisis intervention officer and BIPD mental health efforts. His email is mhamner@bainbridgewa.gov and direct line 206 780 4686.

-Officer Shurick stressed the importance of identifying himself as a crisis intervention officer when interacting with people in psychological distress. "My badge disappears," he said, and people open up, at least to some extent. He also stressed the importance of follow up conversations with people who he's dealt with in crisis. "People want you to come talk to them when they are normal." Officer Shurick sees great value in building ongoing, positive relationships with people with mental health issues.

-Both Officer Shurick and Poulsbo officer Lee Wheeler feel there is a pressing need for better information sharing, among first responders, about people with mental and behavioral problems. This will increase the safety of those suffering from disorders--and the safety of officers. 

-Finally, Officer Shurick and Chief Hamner reminded us about the importance of appropriate expectations. Local police efforts in places like Bainbridge and Poulsbo will not eliminate violent outcomes or behavior, or get all people with illness into treatment. But it was clear from Officer Shurick's presentation there is a lot more we can do in Kitsap County to improve the current situation.

Link to Officer Shurick's power point presentation here.


Friday, October 18, 2013

(Around) 100 days in: Chief Hamner updates Council on Police Reform Efforts

On October 16, Chief Hamner reported to City Council on BIPD reform efforts, and his personal goals for the department. The written report is full of confounding detail--what one would expect following dozens and dozens of LEMAP and Pendleton report recommendations--but his verbal presentation was short and clear. The Chief wants friendly, service-orientated policing, he wants better mental health response (related article here), and he's putting a high premium on officer training and evaluation. He also wants to report quarterly, to Council, about BIPD operations. He's amenable to a civilian police commission that plays a role in the complaint process, but only after officers are trained in new policies and procedures.

What the chief did not say to council, but did tell the Civil Service Commission last week, is that he likes Criminal Justice Training Commission executive director Sue Rahr's distinction between "warrior" cops and "guardians," and the CJTC's new interest in producing the latter. The possibility was raised, with the Commission, that we could actually seek out "guardian" types during the officer interview process.

On Summer of 2012, an ICP citizen's committee recommended seven steps to improve BIPD/community relations: (1) a public commitment, by the BIPD, to a more collaborative, community-oriented style of policing, (2) clear department goals and objectives in a strategic plan, (3) crisis intervention training and the establishment of crisis intervention personnel, (4) regular reporting to city council on policing issues, (5) civilian oversight, (6) improved youth/officer relations and (7) more bike and foot patrol.

Glad that we're all in agreement.