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Partners in policing: After 39 years with the county, North Bend weighs savings, advocacy in Snoqualmie police switch

Thirty-nine years ago, the North Bend City Council voted to dissolve the city’s own police force, and form a contract partnership for police services with the King County Sheriff’s Office instead.

According to a Nov. 29, 1973, Valley Record account of the meeting, police chief Fred Pingrey and other supporters touted the city’s ability to keep their local officers (as long as they applied to be county deputies), along with better pay and opportunities for the officers. Opponents feared a loss of local control, and a less responsive police force—North Bend’s Police Department boasted a response time of under five minutes anywhere in the city.

Both sides knew the city couldn’t afford full-time county coverage, at $112,000, and would probably settle for 16 hours, plus eight hours on-call, for $83,000. They also were pretty sure the city couldn’t afford the police department’s requested $106,000 budget, which included a new car and full-time coverage.

Following the unanimous vote in favor of the contract, several citizens gathered outside the meeting, so incensed, they began discussing a recall of the full council.

That recall never came to fruition, however, and on Jan. 1, 1974, North Bend became the first city in King County to contract with the Sheriff’s Department.

Now, the North Bend council is reviewing that decision, and considering reversing it. At its Tuesday, April 17, meeting, the council invited public testimony on a possible change from King County to the Snoqualmie Police Department, for police services.

Cost and local control are again at the center of the discussion, which began three or four years ago, says North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing in a meeting of the mayors and city administrators of both cities.

North Bend officials are seeking lower costs, greater local control, and a third component, community-oriented policing, from their law enforcement service, and are hoping to find it all, just down the road in Snoqualmie.

Hearing, who can’t actually vote on the contract, said, “We’re going to have to negotiate a contract with Snoqualmie that gives us a level of control in our policing.” He sees that as a position or two on a Snoqualmie public safety committee, or even better, forming a joint commission for organizing the police in both cities.

“Community-oriented policing is the type of policing that Snoqualmie does now, where the intent is to get to know the constituency and to get the constituency to know them,” Hearing added.

King County Sheriff Steve Strachan knows about community-oriented policing. So do Sgt. Mark Toner, North Bend’s chief of police, and Kym Smith, office supervisor at the North Bend Sheriff’s substation. And they are all a little confused on why that’s an issue.

“We have that. It’s already here,” said Smith, who’s been with the department for 14 years. As one of the department’s two civilian employees and a lifelong North Bend resident, Smith sees her deputies meeting with citizens every day, handing out stickers to children, and listening to people’s concerns.

“The officers work with the community extremely well,” she said. “Everybody knows that they can call in here, whether they want to be anonymous, or give us their name, and tell us what’s going on in their communities. The citizens are our eyes and ears. They do such a good job letting us know what’s going on, (so) we can go out and make that difference.”

Toner, Smith, and Strachan all stressed that they had no complaints about and no intention of criticizing the Snoqualmie Police Department, which Strachan said was “a good partner for us.” However, they also felt that the Snoqualmie officers weren’t the only ones who knew their community well. The nine deputies serving the North Bend substation have all specifically requested assignment here, Toner said, and several, like Paul Eng, have been in the community for more than 20 years.

Toner himself came to North Bend in August 2009, and remembers some challenges at first in coordinating deputies and shifts.

“In North Bend, we have a flex model, which means we’ll always have a guy here, but we don’t always know who that is,” Toner said. “We can have a different guy every day, but we try not to.”

Toner pushed for a regularly-scheduled roster of deputies, as much for the city’s benefit as for the deputies’. “We want somebody consistent, and the guys want that too… Once you get assigned to a district, you kind of feel ownership of it.”

After a challenging start, Toner was happy to see a core group of deputies form at the substation. Of the entire department’s 700 deputies, Toner typically only sees these nine come to work at his department each day.

“The only time we get changes up here right now is, one, if somebody gets transferred or promoted, or two, if somebody is on vacation,” Toner said. “This year has been the most stable I’ve seen.”

Unlike the dedicated model used by most cities contracting with the sheriff’s department, the flex model covers such scheduling gaps by assigning another deputy to empty posts in the short term. It also allows overtime, which is paid by the county.

What the flex model doesn’t do, however, is guarantee that one deputy will be patrolling North Bend at all times.

“The contract says we don’t have to,” explained Toner, “but we always have.”

“What we guarantee to North Bend is response to calls for service,” said Robin Rask, a contracts administrator with the sheriff’s office. “What they purchase from us is a dedicated police chief, and guaranteed response to all calls in the city.”

A dedicated model could offer the guarantee of a specific number of officers on duty at any time. It would actually create a city-centric police force of sheriff’s deputies, and allow them to wear city-identified police uniforms and drive city-identified police cars, if city leaders chose that, and could afford it. The dedicated model is also much more expensive.

North Bend’s model is the less expensive of the two, but with many of the benefits of the dedicated model. It also has the distinct advantages that Toner brings to the city.

“I have jurisdiction anywhere in the county,” Toner said, but he feels that the chief benefit he can offer the city is his role as the city’s advocate.

“I am paid by the county to keep the city happy,” he said. “To keep the city happy, I sometimes upset the county.”

Under the model proposed by Snoqualmie, Toner does not see North Bend having its own advocate, as they have with him at the sheriff’s office.

“I hear this discussion about how they want localized control. I am their local control,” he said.

Toner has been with the sheriff’s office 27 years and notes that he will not lose his job if the city ends its contract, just his title of chief.

Newly appointed Sheriff Strachan, however, plans to make improved inter-department cooperation a hallmark of his career, and sees huge potential losses if North Bend leaves the group of partners.

“It’s going to further fragment us,” he said, noting that local police in the area already have created “silos” with their own radio frequencies and their own dispatch agencies. Losing North Bend would mean “we have a larger area that we don’t communicate with… fewer officers backing up our officers on high-risk calls… and we can’t back them up either.”

“If there’s a shooting across the street (in Snoqualmie), we wouldn’t know about it, and we’re five minutes away.”

At the same time, Strachan supports the city’s decision to look at other options in an effort to save costs. In fact, he wants to work with them on ways to save. Each city’s contract “is totally driven by what the community wants to do,” he said, and contracts can be changed at any time. He can’t change his labor costs, however. They are set by a five-year deputies’ union contract, which is up for renegotiation now and renewal in 2013.

Strachan rattles off a list of changes that he would make for North Bend, from closing the substation and renting a smaller space – Toner would like a location within the city’s downtown, but Strachan would be open to subletting from Snoqualmie’s police station – to finding other ways to partner without jeopardizing the local control.

“This is not an open market... Strachan said. “These are all tax dollars funding our departments.”

North Bend’s contract can be updated at any time, Rask said, with a written request from the city administrator. Her office can also help advise cities on possible changes to their contract, she said, but “We don’t ever tell a customer how they should staff their police department. That’s completely up to them. All we do is figure out...a model of what that would look like.”

Strachan hopes to negotiate contract changes that save the city money, while better utilizing the resources at his, and possibly Snoqualmie’s forces.

“I would be amazed if we couldn’t work that out,” he said.


• Snoqualmie Police Department: http://www.ci.snoqualmie.wa.us/Departments/PoliceDepartment/tabid/87/Default.aspx

• King County Sheriff's Office: http://www.kingcounty.gov/safety/sheriff.aspx

 

 

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