Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012: A Busy, Rough Year for Olympia's Police Department

"People don’t call the police because they are having a good day...."

by Janine Unsoeld

On a daily basis, an on-duty police officer is potentially tasked with responding to reports of vehicle thefts, loitering, drug related offenses, suicides, traffic accidents, home and retail burglaries, disorderly conduct, domestic disturbances, and, in the summer particularly, loud parties.

Add to that public service calls such as welfare checks on the elderly or others in need. Add to that the responsibility of being put on the front lines of an increasingly deteriorating economic situation that puts more homeless and mentally ill on the streets, and officers also become required to be all-round social service workers.

Add five homicides to that, and you have a department that is strapped, both emotionally and financially.

It's been a busy, rough year for Olympia's police department.

Dealing with a diverse population with growing needs is challenging for officers in cities across the country, both in large cities, and smaller ones, such as Olympia.

Recently, when Olympia city manager Steve Hall urged the council to create an emergency ordinance to not allow camping on the grounds of city hall, it was an effort to better protect city staff and the public entering the building, and move a homeless population elsewhere. The council did not pass the ordinance and the homeless are still able to camp there -  for now. The homeless are escorted away from the front of city hall by staff and sometimes police officers and the area is cleaned every morning with pressure washers at 6:00 a.m. City hall doors open to the public at 8:00 a.m.

As Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said during a recent city council meeting, "we have an outstanding (police) force - I think they do a good job. Unfortunately, police are too often on the front line of social issues and are forced to manage a situation with too little resources."

Referring to homelessness, he said, "This is not an Olympia problem, it's a national problem...Olympia is not alone...most are homeless out of other issues. It's not a problem of homelessness but health and safety...."

A Quick Profile of the Olympia Police Department

Creating a ever-growing laundry list of questions and concerns earlier this month, I met with Sergeant Paul Johnson and Laura Wohl, public information officer for the Olympia Police Department (OPD).

Based on those interviews, several clarifying, follow up emails, and other research, here is a quick profile of the department and other issues and challenges facing the Olympia Police Department.

  • In 2011, OPD responded to about 50,500 calls for service and, as of six days ago, is on track to respond to 52,000 calls for service in 2012. That’s more than one call for service per capita. 

  • The Olympia police department is composed of 64 commissioned officers, including Chief Ronnie Roberts, a commander, four lieutenants, eight sergeants and 50 police officers and police recruits.The department also has nearly 29 civilian and limited commissioned employees. "Limited commissioned" employees are jail staff who have some, but not all, of the same authority as police officers.

  • Officers are divided into four shifts: daytime, two swing shifts, and one graveyard. The number of officers on duty per day varies, with no lower than four. All shifts overlap in time. Right now, one or two officers work three days a week downtown. The city is divided into four sections: westside, downtown, northeast, and southeast. Scheduling is "incredibly complicated," says Wohl, due to the shifts, contracts with labor unions, vacation schedules, and sickness and other issues.

  • The department is not fully staffed, and there's no "borrowing" of officers from other cities. Officers work overtime, providing the department with safety and financial concerns. The department has hired six new officers in 2012, with seven left to fill.

  • Officers can retire at age 53, which puts them on the leading edge of the baby boomer age, causing real problems in recruiting and hiring. Officer tenure in Olympia is very long, and rarely has someone left the department. It takes one year to fully train an officer so that he or she is able to operate as a solo officer.

  • There are no African American police officers in the department. There is one Asian American officer. Wohl did not know the answer about the number of Hispanic officers, because she said she is not sure which officers meet that category.

  • There are seven women officers in the department, and two currently in the police academy.

  • There are two Spanish speaking officers, one of whom is from Spain and speaks Basque. Wohl did not know what dialect of Spanish the other officer speaks. The department has one Russian speaking officer, and one certified American Sign Language speaker.

Johnson said an interpreter of some sort is needed "once every couple of weeks." Officers are needed who speak Spanish and Asian languages, particularly Vietnamese and Cambodian, to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population in the area. When needed, out of area interpreters are contacted through a national commununications center and patched in on a telephone. "There's a cost to it...and the defendent speaks to him or her. It's OK for certain things but it can't be used as evidence, so if we have a crime, we need a certified interpreter to testify," says Johnson.

  • Officers are paid an average of $61 an hour in overtime (time and a half). Sergeants receive more per hour. When asked how much overtime has been expended by OPD in Thurston County's pursuance of their case against Scott Yoos, Wohl says the department has no way of tracking regular hours or overtime related to a specific case. (For more information about the Scott Yoos case, see other articles by Janine Unsoeld at and type in key words into the search button.)

  • There are gangs in Olympia, with an uptick in their presence in the last two years. They come primarily from Pierce County.

  • Residential burglaries are "huge," says Wohl, much larger than in previous years, mainly in the northeast and westside, and a recent rash in the southeast neighborhoods. The department is not clear why, but a large percentage are drug related. Olympia has a huge heroin and methamphetamine problem. Sixty-nine percent of residential burglaries this past summer were due to unsecured homes and garages. Vehicle prowls are also rising.

The best advice the department can give residents, Wohl says, is to "secure your homes and cars." Neighbors looking out for other neighbor's homes and property is also key.

The department receives hundreds of calls a day. "People will call the police for everything, even to ask for directions on how to get to Best Buy. We do our best to direct people, because they are used to calling the police department for everything," says Wohl.

Wohl said dealing with the mentally ill is one of the biggest responsibilities currently facing the police department.

"They are disruptive, scary, and threatening...the police are caught between a rock and a hard place," says Wohl. "There doesn't seem to be a single social service agency that can deal with them...these are often people known to us, and they've been declared incompetent. Then, they end up in jail. That's not the place for them."

She said the police chief is trying to build a net for the mentally ill by working with the city prosecuting attorney.

"It's necessary to find solutions....for example, we have not one, but two individuals who are paranoid, and call 911 hundreds of times a day. Not only does this tie up 911 resources, but it ties up officer's time," said Wohl.

How Does One Find Out About An Incident Involving the Police?

Wohl said that the department has two databases. One is a computer-aided dispatch log, called a CAD log, which documents every call responded to by the department. For example, following a public records request, I looked at a CAD log summary from June 1 - July 1, 2012. It was 168 pages, with about 27 listings on each page. That's about 4,536 calls in the month of June. If a call becomes a case, then it is assigned a case number.

Meeting with Wohl a couple weeks ago, I inquired about a situation I had heard about and had done a public records request based on the information I knew: a big, deaf man was Tasered by Olympia police on Percival Landing in July. You'd think that would have garnered the necessary report, but since I did not know a case number, I was given a massive file of calls reported in July. I could not find the actual case.

After our interview, Wohl provided me the report.

Deaf Man Tased On Percival Landing - Mentally Ill or Just Singing and Dancing?

The case I specifically requested information about seems to illustrate many challenging issues facing the Olympia police department. Although the case is a matter of public record, Little Hollywood is choosing not to identify the individual or the officers. Whether the man involved in this case is actually mentally ill was not determined.

In a case the police classified as a "mental problem," Olympia police were dispatched to Percival Landing for a report of a disorderly adult male on July 4th. The caller who reported the man said that the person was running around yelling and screaming, appearing to be under the influence of something.

According to the officer's report, the man was large. The report says the man was 6'4 and 242 pounds. The officer says he made "several attempts to draw his attention to me, before I was immediately upon him. I yelled to get his attention, but he did not respond....He looked away from me, walked about 15' to the base of a tree, where he knelt down and started digging in the dirt with his hands...." The officer again attempted to get his attention, to no avail. The officer attempted to secure the man. The officer says,  "(I) drew my Taser CED, pointed it at (his) upper back" and directed (the other officer) to handcuff him. The man resisted, and (the first officer) again Tasered the man. The CED produced the desired affect, in that (the man) immediately stopped resisting and rolled to his back. He did remain tense...there was no further use of force, and no injury, other than 2 CED probe wounds."

"(The man) had now stopped screaming, but took a seated position on the ground and kept trying to scoot away from us. He still ignored all attempts to try to communicate with him. One citizen approached and told us she believes (the man) is deaf. That does appear to be the case. Medics responded to the scene and attempted to evaluate (his) condition. He was transported to St. Peter Hospital by private carrier. Upon medical clearance, (he) will be committed to Crisis Services for a psychological evaluation."

The report goes on to say that a supervisor was called to the scene, and conducted several interviews of people who witnessed the incident. A woman on the scene felt the officers used inappropriate force. The woman said that the man was "just singing and dancing on the grass, and said she didn't know why officers were called or what they were told, but did not feel that the male deserved the actions she had witnessed from the officers. She further stated she had not heard verbal commands given to the male."

Another woman interviewed said that she, her husband, and a friend did observe the male for about ten minutes and it did seem that his behavior was "odd."

Another person, the man who made the initial phone call to the police, said that it wasn't his intention to get the man in trouble, but that he thought the situation should be "checked out".

Another man approached the police officers and the supervisor and said he knew the man was deaf because he had witnessed an incident involving the man at the Salvation Army the day before.

In closing, the report by the supervisor, the acting sergeant of that shift, states, "The actions of both officers were within policy and met with the reasonable officer standard based on the totality of the circumstances."

According to Wohl, the case was also reviewed by the patrol lieutenant for the team involved, the professional standards lieutenant, the commander and the chief.

Wohl said the department does track the number of Taser uses by the department, and that information will be provided to Little Hollywood in January.

Police Oversight: Citizen Review or Police Auditor...or Neither?

According to Wohl, the Olympia police department does not have a police auditor - the position was cut for budgetary reasons in 2009. The department has never had a citizen review panel, although there has been discussion about it.

"It is very unusual for a department of our size to have a citizen review panel. If a citizen makes a complaint, a professional standards lieutenant does a complete investigation into policy and law. For some complaints, a dispute mediator is used, for example, if a complainant feels an officer was's different than any other employment situation. It's a full investigation when a complaint is made of any kind," says Wohl.

"After the professional standards lieutenant makes his or her findings, it is reviewed by the commander and chief of police. If it is sustained, disciplinary action is taken. If somebody doesn't like the determination, and feels they have been harmed, they can make a claim with the city, or file a civil liability tort, and sue us."

In the past, a police auditor reported directly to the city council. The auditor, hired on an annual contract, reported on a quarterly basis, and conducted an internal affairs investigation, looking into use of force and other complaints.

It is not clear from the July police report regarding the incident on Percival Landing how or whether training protocol designed to help police deal with the deaf and hard of hearing was followed. The report does not describe how the officers attempted to get the man's attention, how they missed the fact that he was deaf, nor does it say that the man attempted to use sign language or indicate to officers that he was hearing impaired.

Crisis Intervention Training for Police Officers

A 13 minute training video to help police deal with the deaf and hard of hearing has been viewed by all Olympia police department officers, says Sergeant Paul Johnson. The video and training course manual was reviewed by this reporter through a public records request in September.

The video is part of a 40 hour Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) course curriculum created in 2008. It is sponsored and prepared by several agencies including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Providence St. Peter Hospital, Behavioral Health Resources, the Olympia Police Department, and United Way of Thurston/Mason County. The material is taught by guest instructors and adapted from Seattle, Portland, and Memphis police department curriculum.

Sergeant Paul Johnson says that "most officers" have been through the CIT course training. "My hope is that everyone can (take it). It's pretty expensive - it takes a week to put an individual through the class, and they have to be compensated by state law. So, getting off-duty officers to come in and take it is difficult," says Johnson.

Training Video to Deal With the Deaf and Hearing Impaired

According to the video, which outlines several scenarios and procedures for getting the attention of the deaf and hard of hearing, about 12% of the population has some form of hearing loss.

The video says that "when people have a hearing loss, they should let you know of their situation and how they will need to communicate...the individual may be very expressive with their hands and facial gestures. Be prepared for this as it is part of their communication. Also be aware that some persons who are hard of hearing may speak in a very loud voice. This has often been wrongly interpreted as someone who is angry and contrast, the person who is smiling at you and not responding may not be understanding you."

The video continues, "When giving instructions, keep in mind they cannot understand you if they cannot see your face. Explain procedure and demonstrate facing the person what you want them to do. This can also be a problem when applying handcuffs to the person. Again, first explain what you are going to do before you do it. Handcuffs will also not allow the person to use hand signals when trying to communicate."

The video also states that "just because they (those detained) are hard of hearing or deaf does not mean they cannot pose a threat," pointing out that there is a need to communicate differently without compromising one's safety.

Challenges and Future Conversations

Olympia compares itself to other cities based on city population, rather than department size. Some of our comparable cities are: Auburn, Bremerton, Federal Way, Lacey, Lakewood, Lynnwood, Marysville, Renton and Richland. However, Olympia is unique in several ways.

"For our size, we have a lot of activity - not necessarily criminal - but because we are the state capitol, we have an active citizenry. Other communities are not as active. One of our biggest challenges too, unlike other cities in the county, is that we have a downtown. It's a gathering place. We also have a traveling population, due to having a major transit station (Greyhound), and they don't necessarily have ties to the community," said Wohl.

Asked last week if there was anything else she'd like to add to help community members better understand the Olympia police department, Wohl said, "One thing that I don’t think most people understand is the nature and volume of work we have...people don’t call the police because they are having a good day – they call them when something has gone wrong. Officers often deal with people at emotional extremes and they do it calmly and effectively day in and day out."

For more information: The Olympia police chief meets with community groups, neighborhood associations, social service and civic groups upon invitation. If you would like to meet with Chief Ronnie Roberts, call Laura Wohl at or (360) 951-8889, or go to the police department webpage at