Port Angeles Police Department staffing is up, chief says, but funding gaps remain

2020 legislative changes still having impact

Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith.

Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith.

PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles Police Department is fully staffed despite having lost eight officers in two years, Chief Brian Smith told the Port Angeles Kiwanis Club, but he added that’s not the case for many departments across the state.

“Every one of these new officers is about a 15-18 month journey from finding them to doing all the work,” Smith said Thursday. “At this moment, we’re fully staffed.

“It’s like launching the space shuttle to stay that way,’ Smith said. “We’re outliers also.”

Legislative changes passed in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed caused a mass exodus of law enforcement officials, Smith said.

Not all of the officers who left Port Angeles left for that reason, Smith said, but he told the group that he had considered leaving the state.

“Had they accomplished what they originally planned to accomplish, had they accomplished what they started out with in January, we wouldn’t be sitting here,” Smith said of the state Legislature, which in 2021 passed a number of restrictions on law enforcement that drew deep criticism from officers and others, who said the rules inhibited their ability to fight crime.

“My daughter would have finished her high school in another Zip code in another state; it was that bad,” Smith said. “I had seen what was put out there and said I cannot in good conscience lead women and men in law enforcement if that’s going to be the result in terms of restrictions on us.”

Smith said lawmakers eventually reversed course on many of those changes and credited the Olympic Peninsula’s state lawmakers, Reps. Steve Tharinger and Mike Chapman and Sen. Kevin Van de Wege, all Democrats, with listening to law enforcement’s feedback.

But Smith also said some of the new requirements did have a positive impact. Legislation passed in 2020 on investigations into police use of deadly force and deaths while in police custody has resulted in better reporting, he said.

“The whole process and enterprise has made us better, so we get high-quality response investigations on these incidents where the public wants to know, was the investigation done right, was it done independently,” Smith said.

“There’s nothing to argue about any of that,” he added.

The problem is that the work is not funded, Smith said, and officers are having to add that work to their pre-existing caseloads.

Smith said PAPD, Sequim Police Department and the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office all joined the Kitsap Critical Incident Response Team, or KCIRT, a regional team of law enforcement agencies that investigate each other’s use-of-force incidents.

“We spend more of our time out of the county with our detectives than in the county because we get called to respond wherever the event happens,” Smith said.

Smith and Clallam County Sheriff Brian King are involved in legislative advocacy for their departments, and Smith said he hopes lawmakers take note of the work being done and decide to provide funding.

There are other changes Smith said he’d like to see from the Legislature, including improving rules around police pursuits that were changed in 2021.

“Also, restrictions on juvenile stuff that we face right now, not all that was well thought out,” Smith said. “I don’t know that the public understands the impacts of restricting us to the extent that they’ve done it.”

Local law enforcement are also concerned about funding for a regional drug task allocated by the state Department of Commerce.

Many regional drug task forces have traditionally received their funding through a federal program known as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, but DOC has recently changed its strategic plan for how to distribute those funds.

Clallam County’s drug task force — the Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Team, or OPNET — is one of the groups dependent on that funding, and Smith said following the proposed changes the task force is only funded through July 2024.

Eight of Washington’s 10 U.S. House of Representatives members — including the Peninsula’s Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor — sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee expressing concern about the reallocation.

“We’re very optimistic the Legislature and/or the state are going to make the decision, but as of right now, we do not have any funding for that task force as of July,” Smith said.

While the operations side of PAPD is fully staffed, Smith said the 911 dispatch center, Peninsula Communications (PenCom), is struggling to hire and retain staff.

“We’ve got, I think, six vacancies in PenCom,” Smith said. “We’re making improvements, we’re working our way up, but we still have pretty big staffing vacancies.”

Smith said administrative staff at the department are occasionally covering shifts in the dispatch center, which means their other work goes unaddressed.

The good news is, PenCom and Jefferson County’s dispatch center, JeffCom, are close to integrating their operations, which means the two centers will be able to support one another when staffing is down, Smith said.

PAPD and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office are also working on getting a new communications and emergency operations center, which Smith said he hopes will drive recruitment.

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsuladailynews.com.

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