City of Olympia Begins Search for Next Chief of Police

The next Olympia Police Chief will earn nearly $183,000 a year to be “community-focused, compassionate, accountable, and inspiring,” says a recruiting announcement for the position posted on the city’s website.

The announcement contains only a vague reference to the challenges the new chief will face. Regarding the past year’s protests, counter-protests, shootings of at least two people by people participating in pro-Trump rallies and widespread criticism of police actions/inactions, including the use of flash-bangs and tear gas, it says only this: “Like most cities, Olympia experienced the passions and turbulence rising from the racial justice demonstrations that swept the nation this summer.”

It doesn’t mention the outraged community members who have called on the council to divert public dollars that now fund the department budget to social service programs. The council recently declined to do so. Instead, they increased the budget and gave most officers a raise in the new police union contract. The department does manage two programs with social service rather than enforcement focus.

It also gives only passing mention to efforts the city is undertaking to address issues that continue to bubble (some would say boil) in the community, including accusations that the police are complicit with white supremacists and biased against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.  “The Department is committed to reducing inequities and bias and seeking innovative ways to serve the entire community to ensure the trust and respect of the public safety system through a community discourse that will include broad and diverse voices from our community. Olympia seeks to develop collaboratively crafted and strategic improvements that impact how public safety services are delivered.”

A more succinct and direct description of what the city is doing might say: “In response to community outcry over police response (or lack of response) to demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, vandalism, shootings and other violence, armed, self-identified militia groups “patrolling” downtown while openly carrying firearms, accusations of bias and racism and complicity with white supremacist groups, the city, with the assistance of the community, will take an in-depth look at community expectations for public safety and law enforcement practices to ensure equitable treatment for all. 

The city is engaged in a “reimagining public safety” process to culminate in a draft report scheduled to be complete in August 2021. That report will make recommendations for changes for the Council’s consideration. Simultaneously, the city has a new Social Justice and Equity Advisory Commission, which is beginning a four-phase process toward establishing a permanent commission. It will have a separate community engagement process and make its recommendations on ensuring traditionally under-represented voices have a say in city policies, procedures, and operations. 

Also, the council has commissioned a study of police protocols and crowd control responses in 2020 “so we may understand how to avoid disparate responses to civil unrest and find ways to “remedy the findings of the study.” It also directed the city manager to develop a public safety plan to “protect the community from the rising threat of domestic terrorism and white supremacist extremism.”

That move came in mid-January, after months of efforts by BLAST (Black Leaders in Action & Solidarity Thurston County and the Thurston Asset-Building Coalition to get the city to enforce state law on militias and institute widespread police reforms; the January 6 insurrection in the nation’s Capitol; and the short-lived incursion of anti-Inslee protestors onto the Governor’s Mansion lawn.

The new chief will be expected to be part of all of these efforts.

Under the city’s organizational structure, the chief reports to the City Manager and supervises 110 employees, and oversees a $21.8 million annual budget that pays for its operations and administration of the 28-bed city jail. The council approved a new contract in January after the department’s officers operated under an expired version for a year. Council members have said repeatedly over the past year that they cannot tell the chief how the department should operate, even though it approves the contract and the fact the city manager reports directly to the council.

The deadline to apply is February 22. The search is being conducted by a local recruiting firm, which does not show any other police departments on its client list. It has done recruitments for the city in the past, including the city manager, fire chief, and strategic communications director positions. It also did the recruitment for the Port of Olympia executive director. 

The city has been without a police chief for more than a year. Ronnie Roberts, who had served in the position since January 2011, retired from the department in December 2019.

Allegations of racism in the department began spiraling toward their new heights during his nine years on the job. The department was highly criticized, especially by the Black community, for an officer-involved shooting that injured one young Black man and left his brother paralyzed, and the investigation of the death of a Black woman on Olympia’s Westside that her family members maintain was botched and that her niece is still pursuing. Both cases triggered protests, and in both, police officers were cleared of wrong-doing. 

During Roberts’ time as chief, protestors twice blocked railroad tracks in Olympia and were removed by law enforcement during pre-dawn raids. Community members have speculated whether city management silenced Roberts, who was rarely heard from after statements he made in 2016 appeared to support protestors attempting to stop the shipment of materials used in fracking from the Port of Olympia. This despite the fact that OPD staged early morning raids, with tear gas and flash-bangs, to break up the blockades. 

“I am struggling to understand why the port is not aligned with our community values we hold so dear … I care about our climate, our environment, and the impact of products being moved through our community for the sake of money … I don’t want to be a part of this, Roberts told the Council.

After his retirement, Aaron Jelcick became acting chief. He is not expected to apply for the permanent job.

By Mindy Chambers

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