Olympia Pauses Search for New Police Chief

Less than 24 hours after he announced the four finalists for Olympia Police Chief and praised them for their “vision for policing and their readiness to take on the unique challenges and opportunities facing the city of Olympia,” City Manager Jay Burney has “paused” the search for a new chief.

Friday morning, Burney announced that one of the four candidates withdrew after The Olympia Tribune drew Burney’s attention to a past use of force incident involving the candidate. 

After Burney announced the finalists late Thursday afternoon, a quick internet search by The Tribune found that finalist Derrick Turner, who manages day-to-day operations of a police division at the Port of Portland, was disciplined in 2017 by the police chief of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Turner was a sergeant, for violating that city’s use of force policy for “a subject control method not taught or recommended.”  Turner was given a written reprimand and was to undergo additional training.

The full story is here: https://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/2017/08/man_found_not_guilty_in_incide.html

“I am incredibly upset by this turn of events,” Burney said in a news release. “We are taking a pause because our community needs to trust our process, and we owe it to the remaining finalists, who are strong candidates and deserve the opportunity to compete without a shadow cast over the process.

“I apologize for the impact of this on the remaining candidates and thank them for their graciousness and patience,” Burney said.

The use-of-force incident did not come up as part of the vetting process for the candidates. The news release says Burney became aware of the incident during an inquiry from a local journalist and took immediate action. The City contracted with the local firm Karras Consulting to assist with the search. Part of its work was to vet the candidates including background checks.

“There are no excuses from us,” said Dennis Karras, of Karras Consulting. “This was clearly an oversight on our part.”

Finalists also include interim Police Chief Aaron Jelcick, Olympia Police Lt. Amy King, who oversees the city’s walking patrol and neighborhood policing efforts, and Sean Case, captain of administration at the Anchorage Police Department.

As the city pauses, Burney will consider the options for continuing the search process. In the meantime, Jelcick will continue to lead the Olympia Police Department.

“I heard from the community that they have an expectation of a broad, inclusive process that they can trust. I am committed to honoring that expectation,” said Burney.

Under the city’s council-manager form of government, the city manager, rather than the city council, has the authority to hire the police chief. However, the council hires the city manager, which over the past year has led community members to question why the council has not held Burney accountable for decisions by OPD and actions by its officers.

Jelcick has been in the interim role since the retirement of former chief Ronnie Roberts in early December 2019. 

After beginning the search process last fall, the city on Thursday began fast-tracking the final selection, with interviews scheduled for next week and the chief to be named by the end of April. 

The process to date and the inclusion of Turner as a finalist was criticized late Thursday by Malika Lamont, of Black Leaders in Action and Solidarity Thurston County. 

“It is disturbing to me that the city of Olympia is portraying this selection process as transparent and inclusive when (the) community has not been involved in a meaningful way. Furthermore, it is especially troubling that one of the finalists was found guilty of excessive force and was accused of directing racial epithets towards Black people in the same incident of excessive force,” she said. 

BLAST formed in 2020 “to elevate voices for Justice, transparency and respect for marginalized people; to dismantle systematic and institutionalized racism and our justice and law enforcement, correctional institution’s and local governments, public safety, education institutions, housing and health and human service services; finally to ensure all officials are held accountable in fostering true safety and trust in our community.”

In June, it delivered a list to city, county and state officials that included specific demands around police reform.

The full list is here: https://blasthurston.org/demands/  

“Sadly, it seems that Olympia city government has not moved as far forward as they are portraying,” Lamont said, questioning why no one from BLAST was asked to participate in the interview process. “The pattern of systemic exclusion and retaliation perpetrated by multiple levels of local government towards those brave enough to provide critique is beneath what the residents of Olympia and Thurston County at large deserve. This could have been an opportunity to do better and build community and engage everyone in an inclusive and meaningful process. Sadly it looks like oppressive and exclusive business as usual.”

The new chief will lead a department that has been beset by criticism and controversy over its handling of downtown protests in 2020 that included shootings and other violence the department has admitted it was not always prepared for.

Also under scrutiny is OPD’s use of chemical dispersants and flashbangs during protests by Black Lives Matter and other protest groups while allowing self-proclaimed vigilante groups to openly carry firearms throughout the city. Also, one of its officers faced allegations that she had allied herself with white supremacists when appearing in a photograph with armed men from Three Percenters, a far-right militia group, the night of one of the protests. An OPD internal investigation found that was not the case; she later was named the department’s officer of the year. 

Last year, the council banned the use of chemical agents to disperse crowds, signed letters supporting Black Lives Matter and decrying armed vigilantes in the community. 

The city also has undertaken a “reimagining public safety” initiative to be officially launched in April. The city’s website says it will be a “community-led public engagement process … to identify solutions for reducing inequities, eliminating bias, and creating a public safety system that works for all … that emphasizes the voices and expertise of marginalized individuals and those with lived experience in the public safety system.” This work is scheduled to be complete in December.

And just recently, the council requested Burney to commission a study of police protocol and crowd control responses in 2020 so it can get a handle on “how to avoid disparate responses to civil unrest.” The council wants policy recommendations that will remedy any findings from the study, which will look at OPD policies and training regarding response to demonstration/crowd control and protection of First Amendment rights and whether they were followed in 2020; a review of how OPD responded to significant demonstrations that occurred in 2020; and protocols for informing the community of potentially dangerous situations. 

The demonstrations and OPD actions to be reviewed occurred on May 31 and June 1; a July 24 incident in which chemical irritants were used at their effect on private residences; November 1, 2020, Dia De Los Muertos incidents on Percival Landing where conflicting accounts emerged about police action/inaction; any incidents that involved violent interactions between two opposing groups; and the officer’s interaction/photo taken with the Three Percenters.

Also in the past year, the city has formed Social Justice & Equity Advisory Commission to listen to marginalized community members affected by social and institutional injustice and to inform how the City addresses institutional racism. Its work is slowly getting underway.

OPD has 110 employees and an annual operating budget of $21.8 million. Its unions’ latest contracts with the city were signed only recently after expiring at the end of 2019. Burney, who was negotiating the separate contracts with police officers and sergeants, blamed the delay on difficulties posed by the pandemic.

The council chose Burney as city manager in May 2020, after jettisoning a “nationwide search” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He had been the assistant city manager and had been serving as interim since the November 2019 retirement of Steve Hall, who held the position for 16 years.

The city news release announcing his appointment stated: “The Olympia City Manager is a highly visible builder of support and key alliances with the citizens, business, community associations, tribes, and neighboring communities.”

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By Mindy Chambers

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    Good work. You are filling a gaping journalistic void in this community by holding people accountable.

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