Port Townsend council agrees to form policing panel

Members from community also will serve on ad hoc committee

PORT TOWNSEND — The full Port Townsend City Council, along with other members of the community, will serve on an ad hoc committee on policing.

Council members unanimously approved forming the committee during a special meeting on Monday. More details — such as the other members of the committee and meeting dates — were not decided then.

Most of the 40 people who offered public comment on the proposal supported it, with many urging the inclusion of people of color.

“I am very supportive of a referendum to review the role and funding of policing in our community and urge you to listen to the demands and direction of Black and Indigenous leaders in our wider community in ways to best achieve this,” said Emily Hiatt of Port Townsend.

Some also suggested topics for the committee to research.

One member of the public, Earthen Watson, suggested the committee look into the history of racism in Washington state, as well as racism in local courts and jail systems, and research community policing programs.

“These ideas challenge our imaginations, and this work will take much effort,” Watson said.

“Please research programs that other cities have endeavored, what has worked for communities and what hasn’t. Types of programming can include but are not limited to economic opportunity programs, trauma-informed crisis intervention teams, unarmed behavioral and mental health responders, safe public spaces programming, transformative mentoring programs, community cohesion and community de‐escalation training,” Watson said.

Officials with both the Port Townsend Police Department (PTPD) and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office said earlier this month they use community policing tactics such as focusing on getting people help for mental health services, drug addiction and other services when possible, and avoiding arrests unless necessary.

Ad hoc committee

The recently formed committee is different from other such city committees in that it is composed of the full council as opposed to just two or three council members.

“The reason I’m proposing that is, first of all, it’s an extremely important issue in this time and place that we are in our country and in our community,” Mayor Michelle Sandoval said.

“I think our community would be better served if our council as a whole dig in and listens to all of the concerns of our community so that we all hear them in real-time and that we have discussions as a group, and that the community knows that each one of us is there listening.”

The committee expects to engage with not only city law enforcement but also the county law enforcement and county commissioners as there is a shared relationship, Sandoval said.

“We have a relationship with the deputies at the sheriff’s office, not only because we are in the county, but they also will work inside the city limits when we are short-staffed in our police department,” she said.

“We welcome a conversation not only with the City Council and our police officers, but we hope we can engage with the county commissioners as well as Sheriff (Joe) Nole and Prosecuting Attorney (James) Kennedy to talk about the more systemic nature of what happens in our community.”

The preliminary topics the committee will research include the nature, frequency and types of calls that the Port Townsend Police Department responds to on a day-to-day basis; the use, origin and legal ramifications of the practice of qualified immunity, collective bargaining agreements, and use of force/ deadly force.

Alternatives to police response and training such as navigators and community policing also will be discussed.

Officers with the PTPD are required to learn de-escalation training in addition to training on how to exhaust all peaceful options before the use of force or deadly force may be necessary, Chief Troy Surber has said.

The department also has a community officer on staff for events and non-criminal calls as well as a social worker/navigator on staff to handle calls involving persons in need of mental health or addiction care.

“I will say, with some bias because it’s my team, that we have an exceptional department and an exceptional interim chief,” City Manager John Mauro said.

“The polices that we have are very much on the forefront nationwide, and that’s something as a community we should be proud of and grateful for.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t have further work to do. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have policies and procedures that need a bit of reflection.”

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Ken Park can be reached at [email protected].

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