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Ready for anything: Snoqualmie police have no doubts that municipal force can handle neighboring North Bend
Snoqualmie’s Police Department is ready to grow, was built for growth, in fact. Another six officers, the estimated hire needed for the department to police North Bend, wouldn’t even trigger an anticipated remodel of the 1998 building, says Jim Schaffer, Snoqualmie’s soon-to-retire chief.
The 13,000 square-foot police station on Douglas Avenue is home to 14 police officers and three civilian staff members, a handful of subletting State Highway Patrolmen, another handful of community meetings and programs, a firing range, two holding cells, a couple of dirtbikes for patrolling on trails, and a variety of special equipment.
It is also under-utilized, Schaffer says quite frankly, but only because it was built for the size of police force the growing town of Snoqualmie would ultimately need.
“We built it with the future in mind,” says Schaffer, who’s been with the department 23 years. “We came from 1,500 square feet to 13,000 square feet… and when it gets to the point we need to expand, we built for that, too.”
From his office overlooking the small pond that hosts the annual spring children’s fishing derby, Schaffer gestures to the deck running along the southwest side of the building. The station can build out onto that, and to the southeast, pushing into their parking lot, to easily accommodate the 20-plus officers and civilian staff it would need to service a 15,000-person city.
The readiness of the station is a reflection of the officers that work there, according to several officers on the force.
“We feel like we’re capable of handling anything that comes at us,” said Officer Dan Moate, a department member for the last four years. As president of the Snoqualmie Police Association, Moate feels the officers are not only able to take on the additional responsibilities that would come with a contract for North Bend’s police services, but are looking forward to it.
“I think the benefit the officers see of getting the North Bend contract is more officers working together. Instead of three on a crew, we might have four or five,” Moate said.
Captain Steve McCulley, who will take the reins as chief when Schaffer retires June 30, outlined other benefits of a shared police force in the Upper Valley.
“North Bend has schools, Snoqualmie has schools, and we’re very entrenched in the schools. That can help make things more seamless, especially with the school district’s REMS grant,” he said, referring to the two-year federal grant the school district received last year for emergency management planning.
In ramping up to service North Bend, McCulley said, “there’s going to be a lot of community outreach, meeting with the businesses, seeing what their needs are, and just making sure that we’re stepping off on the right foot,” too.
McCulley also described the more advanced policing abilities his department could offer, at an April 17 presentation to the North Bend City Council. Because of Snoqualmie’s membership in the Coalition of Small Police Agencies, McCulley said the department has access to detectives, its own major crimes task force, specialty training that would otherwise be too expensive for the department to offer, and the opportunity for each officer to focus on a particular area of police work.
“Each officer has a specialty,” McCulley told the North Bend Council.
The coalition was formed in 2002 to pool the resources of smaller agencies, making training more affordable, and winning grants more feasible. Each of the 12 police departments in the coalition contributes officers to coalition projects, such as investigating incidents like the missing person reported in Snoqualmie in November, 2010, on the major crimes task force, or becoming certified trainers in courses like the Active Shooter training held three weeks ago, or in emergency vehicle operations (EVOC). Two Snoqualmie officers are detectives on the major crimes task force, and Moate is an EVOC trainer. Officer Jason Weiss specializes in DUI enforcement both inside and beyond the coalition, something extra that a smaller department can offer its staff, Schaffer noted. Last week, Weiss accepted an award for his department’s participation in the Target Zero enforcement partnership with several Eastside cities.
Of course, the highway patrol and sheriff’s department are also available for backup, McCulley added. Both he and Schaffer expressed full respect for the sheriff’s department, and a belief and desire that their relationship with the department would not change.
Sheriff Steve Strachan reassured everyone on that point, saying, “If we’re needed, we go. No matter what we talk about here, that’s not going to change.”
Many Snoqualmie officers also live within the Upper Valley, McCulley said, giving them “a real understanding of what services need to be provided to our city.”
North Bend would benefit from that, as well, if the city chose to contract with Snoqualmie.
“When the public calls for us, they’re going to get a police officer at their door,” McCulley said.
It will be a familiar face, too. Snoqualmie will have to hire six new officers and a civilian records clerk to cover North Bend, and McCulley said he’s heard concerns that North Bend will get “the new guys.”
Not true, he says. “We’re going to send our best people over there, get them trained up and familiar with the city and their ordinances, while our new guys are getting trained here, under close supervision,” he said, “and then eventually they’ll be rotated through.”
“And they’ll be one of 18 cops in the city,” added Schaffer.
Schaffer counts 18 because the chief’s role is mainly administrative and the second-in-command captain is mainly supervisory. “We’re not what we call ‘real cops!’” he laughs.
Snoqualmie’s presentation at the North Bend council meeting emphasized capability, stability, education and community-oriented policing. Like the King County Sheriff’s Office presentation that went before, it also focused on public safety, and the cooperation that already exists between the two agencies.
The questions it didn’t answer were raised by several members of the public, and councilmen.
What about local control? Who is the department accountable to? What happens to the people outside the city limits? And what’s going on with Snoqualmie’s police contract?
Local control hadn’t been discussed yet, but Snoqualmie officials both at the meeting and afterward said North Bend will have some voice on police issues. City Manager Bob Larson said the city would be supportive of the idea of placing a North Bend councilman on the Snoqualmie Civil Service Commission (Schaffer was skeptical that this was allowed by state law, however).
Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson said “We’ve made very clear from the beginning, if they contract for our services, they’re contracting with us,” but added “By no means is North Bend not going to have some influence here…. there’s going to be significant dollars invested in the ramp-up of our police department, so we’re clearly going to entertain their input.”
Larson added, however, that North Bend could lose a little in terms of accountability, and the loss of its own police chief. He compared it to the city of Carnation’s contract for police services with Duvall, saying “Clearly they don’t have that connection, and that’s a choice. If you want that, it’s more expensive.”
Schaffer felt accountability was just part of the job for his department, so when a business owner wanted to speak with a higher-ranking officer about an ongoing problem, the sergeant, the captain, or even the chief would go to that talk.
“It’s wringing with accountability,” he said.
At the end of the day, though, North Bend can end any contract it enters with Snoqualmie, or, if still in negotiations, withdraw its 18-month notice of cancelling the sheriff’s contract. Until then, if North Bend has hired Snoqualmie Police, the city will receive the same level of service that Snoqualmie residents have, Schaffer, McCulley, and Larson all affirmed.
Sheriff Strachan responded to the concerns about residents of unincorporated North Bend, assuring them that the current level of service, one deputy patrolling the C1 district from North Bend city limits to Snoqualmie Pass, won’t change. In a separate conversation, Schaffer noted that his officers can and do keep an eye out for incidents outside of their coverage area, as well, and have open lines of communication with the sheriff’s department, the highway patrol, and other agencies that could respond.
He is also confident that his department is capable of doing the job for North Bend, despite the lack of a present contract with the Snoqualmie Police Association.
Expired since 2010, the contract has been through mediation, Moate said, and has just qualified for arbitration. He expected the contract discussion to be resolved soon.
Contract debates are common, all sides agreed. Snoqualmie’s last three-year contract, now expired, was approved more than one year into its span, and in 2005, before a new contract was approved, Snoqualmie had considered dissolving its police department to contract with the Sheriff’s Department.
Until a new contract is in place, Moate said the force will operate under the terms of the old contract, and the negotiations haven’t affected morale.
“Just because we haven’t settled the contract, doesn’t mean we’re unhappy,” he said.