Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014: Year in Review

It’s been a horrible year for American policing, with story after story in the national news about officer-involved shootings, police militarization, anti-police demonstrations and officers becoming the targets of violence. We are fortunate to live in a community where police use of force is rare, and police/community relations are respectful. But good policing—like all good government—is not something to take for granted. It requires an ongoing effort by many people, not simply a city manager or a police chief. Islanders for Collaborative Policing was formed, three years ago, to encourage Bainbridge residents to be more involved and informed about local policing. We operate under a few core beliefs:

1) Policing should be a profession grounded in public service and compassion. We favor what Sue Rahr, Director of the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission, calls a “guardian” style of policing.

2) Policing should involve meaningful collaboration between officers and the community they serve.

3) Police accountability measures are proven methods to continuously improve policing. Citizen oversight is something progressive communities across the country embrace: it helps identify problems early, enhances department professionalism, and builds trust in police operations.

4) Bainbridge Island is a progressive community that desires a department of public safety professionals that are committed to ongoing and continuous improvement.

5) There are costs involved in maintaining the quality of police service we espouse. It is understood that exceptional law enforcement does not come cheaply, and we support adequate funding for officer training, recruitment, evaluation, and oversight—and police salaries that reward performance and encourage extended loyalty.

We’ve been busy, this year, taking action in support of these beliefs. Here’s a quick recap of our 2014 efforts and accomplishments.

Officer orientation/guardian policing. We know, from talking to local officers, that a significant amount of their time is spent in situations involving people with severe and unmanaged mental illness. These interactions often involve people in crisis, and they can be extremely dangerous. Our main focus, in 2014, was to improve police response in these crisis situations. Our goal is to have officers—whenever possible—treat people with mental illness humanely, and to reduce the use of force in crisis situations. To that end we:

… worked closely with police chiefs throughout the county to launch a crisis intervention officer program. The aim of this program is to have at least one highly trained CIO in each law enforcement department in Kitsap County—both to help with on the ground situations and to serve as a community resource. (The thinking, here, is if officers establish relationships with parents and caregivers before a crisis occurs, it will increase the probability of a peaceful outcome when it does.) We assembled caregivers, first responders, government officials and mental health providers throughout the year to help develop aspects of this program, and were especially proud to join in hosting the official CIO program launch in July (together with the Poulsbo and Bremerton police departments).

… have worked to create more resources and options for officers in the field. Police can not respond humanely to people with mental illness unless they have the tools to do so. To that end, we worked with law enforcement to encourage information sharing among first responders. We worked with the BIPD to develop a pamphlet about county mental health resources. We advocated and built support for a new crisis triage center in Kitsap County that will serve as an alternative to jail for some mentally ill offenders. And we made preliminary efforts to create the position of a mental health advocate to help mentally ill defendants in the criminal justice system.

The service or guardian approach, of course, is not restricted to one aspect of police work. We worked with Chief Hamner and the city’s civil service commission, earlier this year, to identify the character traits necessary for guardian policing—compassion, communication skills, community orientation—and to favor candidates who have these desired attributes during the officer hiring process.

Police/Community Collaboration. ICP held quarterly mental health working group meetings, in 2014, to encourage communication between public officials, county law enforcement personnel, mental health professionals, mental health advocates, social service providers, fire department personnel, and school district personnel about mental health issues. These meetings have become important platforms to build support for new initiatives and to promote police/community collaboration. Membership in this group has more than doubled this year.

Accountability Measures. ICP advocated, throughout 2014, for some form of local police oversight, not because we are distrustful of the BIPD, but because we think our community will benefit from our police department receiving citizen input and attention. We have urged the City Council to think about an oversight board as a body that suggests improvements in policing policies and priorities—not simply one that reviews officer complaints. Thanks to ICP’s efforts, an ordinance that would have given the Chief a controlling leadership role on an oversight committee was withdrawn, and City Council affirmed the importance of such a body’s independence. A Council ad-hoc committee was formed, in September, to consider next steps, and what form police oversight on the Island should take.

Looking ahead. It’s been a productive year for ICP but there is still much work to do. High among our goals for 2015 are to see an oversight entity created, a crisis triage center established, and an even more robust crisis intervention officer program in place. We are grateful for the community support our efforts have received—and encourage more of our neighbors to get involved in our efforts.

Best wishes for a happy 2015 from the ICP Board,

Scott Anderson
Kent Bridwell
Kim Hendrickson
Dennis Tierney

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Oversight Update: City Council Steps In

After considering, and rejecting, the second poorly thought out police oversight proposal from the City Manager and Police Chief (see ICP's summary here), Council formed its own ad-hoc committee, at last week's meeting, to get the ball rolling on a police committee that will discuss policing issues, promote police/community communication, and, in the words of one councilmember, serve as an "early warning system." The three members of the ad-hoc committee are Val Tollefson, David Ward, and Roger Townsend.

Many Islanders wrote to Council, in recent days, to stress the importance of an oversight entity that is independent of the police department and transparent in its operations. Thanks to their efforts, and Council's willingness to step up and address the issue, we're finally moving in the right direction.

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.