Port Townsend police panel begins review

Ad-hoc committee on public safety hears chief’s report

PORT TOWNSEND — The Port Townsend Police Department is “an industry leader in progressive policing,” Interim Chief Troy Surber told a committee formed to investigate police interactions during its first meeting.

“We recognized over a decade ago that we must change to meet the needs of society,” Surber said Monday.

The Port Townsend Ad Hoc Committee on Public Safety and Law Enforcement is made up of the full city council.

Mayor Michelle Sandoval appointed all members of the council to the committee, making it a committee of the whole.

“After much thought, I decided all of us should get the same information” because the matter is so important, Sandoval said Tuesday.

The council had agreed to form an ad hoc committee to investigate policing on June 29 following protests of police brutality in the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the creation of a Black Lives Matter mural for a Juneteenth commemoration that drew more than 1,000 people in Port Townsend.

The special committee meets virtually on the last Monday of the month at 5 p.m. until its final meeting Dec. 31.

For information about the meetings, visit the city website at cityofpt.us.

Although the committee constitutes a quorum of elected officials, no action is to be taken by the committee until a scheduled meeting of the City Council, Sandoval said.

The draft plan is that the committee will discuss alternatives to law enforcement response Aug. 24, policy and policy options for use of force Sept. 28 and collective bargaining and qualified immunity Oct. 26.

A final report is to be finished by Dec. 31.

Among the topics the committee is to investigate are the nature, frequency and type of police calls made in Port Townsend; the nature, use origin and legal ramifications of qualified immunity; the nature, policy and legal ramifications of police bargaining and Port Townsend Police collective bargaining agreements; the use of force policy and the nature, use and legal ramifications of use of force, specifically deadly force; alternatives to police responses, including navigators and community service officers; and police department policy alternatives including Lexipol and in-house contracted policies.

On Monday, the group heard a presentation from the interim chief of police.

Surber said the Port Townsend Police Department has strict policies on body cameras, use of force, officer-involved shootings and crisis intervention.

As an example, he told of the department’s accountability policy.

“Any officer present and observing another officer using force that is clearly beyond that which is objectively reasonable under the circumstances shall, when in a position to do so, intercede to prevent the use of unreasonable force,” Surber said. “An officer who observes another employee use force that exceeds the degree of force permitted by law should promptly report these observations to a supervisor.”

Surber also provided some initial data, collected from 2017-19, on crimes, arrests and demographics in Port Townsend.

Twenty percent of the calls PTPD responds to are assisting other agencies during emergencies. A little more than 10 percent are noise complaints and traffic violations, and 9 percent are suspicious activity, he said.

In terms of arrests, the department is still searching through data on types of crime, but demographically, the majority have been of white people, although that is primarily because 93 percent of Port Townsend is white.

“The jail booking racial demographics are more or less consistent with the population demographics of the city,” Surber said.

Following Surber’s presentation, council members said they want more information on racial demographics, details of the police department budget compared with similar city departments, more information on what goes into assisting other agencies, histories of complaints and hours of officer training.

Council member Ariel Speser said she also wants to have members of the department tell their experiences during other meetings.

“Through this process, I don’t want to lose the opportunity to also hear directly from our (police) force,” Speser said.

“If there is a way that we could carve out some time to have them speak to us about the challenges that they face, out in the community, I think that would probably be some pretty valuable insight.”

In that same light, Council member Amy Howard noted the committee also needs to hear from the Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) community as well.

“I would like to have some sort of invitation to have our BIPOC community speak directly to us,” Howard said.

“I don’t know what the might look like, but … the vast majority of us are white, and I would like to hear from the community that is directly impacted by police interaction.”

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Reporter Ken Park can be reached at [email protected].

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