Olympia Interim Police Chief Retires

Less than 24 hours after he updated the community on another open, armed conflict that raged through downtown Olympia and ended in a shooting before police took any action to de-escalate it, the city of Olympia announced interim Police Chief Aaron Jelcick is retiring effective September 30. 

And apparently as reassurance to a community rattled by more than a year of sporadic, largely unchecked violence near the state Capitol Campus and downtown, Jelcick said police are engaged in planning for another possible confrontation on September 18, when members of a group involved in Saturday’s rampage – the Portland-based Proud Boys – have announced they are planning to return to Olympia.

That’s the same day as a rally at the planned near the U.S. Capitol. Various news reports say “Justice for J6,” has been organized to demand “justice” for people charged in connection with the January 6 insurrection at the nation’s Capitol. 

Jelcick, interim chief since November 2019, described Saturday’s incident as a clash between “members of the Proud Boys and people allied with Antifa”. He said the Proud Boys “were pursuing members of the group allied with Antifa when the two groups clashed at the Intercity Transit Station. We can confirm that the shots were fired by someone from the Antifa group, and the bullet struck a member of the Proud Boys.”

He characterized the behavior as inexcusable but did not address widespread criticism that law enforcement officers did nothing to de-escalate the situation before the shooting. The person who was shot received a minor injury and the investigation continues, Jelcick said. It’s not clear how OPD actions on Saturday fit in with the department’s Guiding Principles, which specifically call for the use of de-escalation techniques and discuss when to use dispersal orders during civil disturbances.

The criticism echoes that levied against police last year, when law enforcement seemed to be caught unawares about the potential for violence at several protests that erupted into assaults and shootings. The Guiding Principles came about as a result of those protests.

The city has been without a permanent police chief for nearly two years; the previous chief Ronnie Roberts retired in November 2019. A search for a new permanent chief was upended earlier this year when the contractor conducting the search failed to find out that one of the candidates was disciplined for a use of force incident while a police officer in another state and another, an OPD officer, was reprimanded twice in 2016, for incidents other than the use of force.

City Manager Jay Burney, who supervises Jelcick, said Friday morning he will appoint a new interim chief “within the next few days” and restart the police chief search in 30-60 days. Burney said he will be meeting with search firms over the next couple of weeks before choosing one. The city news release also said the city “remains committed to a broad, inclusive and transparent process,” but gave no further details on what that will look like. 

Burney said Saturday’s events did not precipitate the retirement, and in the news release, he lauded Jelcick’s record.

“Aaron Jelcick stepped up for the City, for the community and for me to lead our police department during the most difficult period in our City’s history. “I am tremendously grateful for his leadership and support as we’ve navigated a global pandemic, social unrest, and as we have taken on the important task of reimagining public safety. His commitment to the City of Olympia and the Olympia Police Department is unmatched,” Burney said.

He noted that under Jelcick’s leadership, the OPD’s Crisis Response Unit and Familiar Faces Program grew to national acclaim “for growing and expanding alternative police response for people suffering mental health and substance use disorder.”

Jelcick noted the difficulties of the job and praised those in OPD he’s worked with. “The past several years have been challenging for those serving in the in a law enforcement profession, but despite these challenges the Olympia Police Department continued to learn, adapt and improve in how it served the community. I am proud of the work the OPD is doing, and I am confident that the OPD will continue to be among the finest in the nation.”

Some mild friction between Jelcick and Burney emerged in July when Jelcick joined five other local police chiefs and the Thurston County Sheriff in a statement that later drew a bit of a contradiction from Burney. 

The statement was a response to numerous police reform laws enacted in 2021, and said in part: 

“This bill (House Bill 1310) will change how police respond to various calls. In most instances, police will no longer respond to “community care” situations where identifiable crimes have not been committed. Examples of “community care” situations include suicidal threats, drug overdoses, medical emergencies, welfare checks, public nuisances, and people suffering from mental illness or crisis. Instead, mental health professionals, fire and emergency medical service (EMS) personnel, and other specialized providers may be asked to respond to those requests. The Olympia Police Department will rely more heavily on its Crisis Response Unit to help fill this gap. … If community members call 911 to report “community care” emergencies, officers and deputies have been encouraged to make telephone contact, gather more information, and determine the proper response

In his statement, Burney countered: 

“When called, the Olympia Police Department will respond. Our commitment is to make sure it is the right response. We believe that is what our lawmakers want, what our community wants, and it is what we want,” he wrote. “Depending on the nature of the call, OPD’s response may be the arrival of a police officer, or it may mean the arrival of a Crisis Response Unit, or both in some combination. Depending on the seriousness of the call, OPD’s response may be a uniformed officer in a matter of minutes, or a car driving by the situation, or a follow-up phone call. The community will receive a response.”

Burney said the police reform efforts in the Legislature “are only speeding Olympia up the path we were already taking. While on that path, we already banned chokeholds, car chases, and shooting into moving vehicles. We already eliminated tear gas. And our police officers already operate under a duty to intervene … We have been growing our Crisis Response Unit. Our next step is to expand it to a 24-hour service.”

That step likely will happen next year, along with an expansion of the Downtown Ambassadors to a seven-day-a-week operation. Both were discussed by the Ad Hoc Committee on Public Safety at a meeting Thursday night.

The City Council formed the committee, composed of three of its members, in the aftermath of downtown protests that began in May 2020 and sometimes ended in a shower of pepper spray and tear gas. It is working to gain an understanding of the current system and to make recommendations to the council on policy and funding options to help reduce inequities, eliminate bias, and “create a public safety system that works for all Olympians.” 

The city also is engaged in a Reimagine Public Safety effort focused on policing, corrections, prosecution, public defense, and courts and has named a community workgroup to help with those efforts, including holding community “listening sessions” that have yet to be scheduled. 

“The past several years have been challenging for those serving in the in a law enforcement profession, but despite these challenges the Olympia Police Department continued to learn, adapt and improve in how it served the community. I am proud of the work the OPD is doing, and I am confident that the OPD will continue to be among the finest in the nation.”

Jelcick began his law enforcement career as a patrol officer with OPD and has served as a walking patrol officer, training officer, Thurston County Narcotics Task Force detective, Olympia police detective, patrol sergeant, detective sergeant, police lieutenant, Deputy Police Chief, and as interim chief. 

By Mindy Chambers

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