Port Townsend police rarely use force, chief says

City sits well below national average

PORT TOWNSEND — The rate at which police officers use force in Port Townsend is 10 times lower than the national average, interim Chief Troy Surber told the city’s ad hoc committee on public safety and law enforcement.

“In this time when policing agencies across the country are having to change entire ways of performing their duties, we find ourselves in Port Townsend far ahead of the curve,” Surber on Monday told the panel, which is comprised of the full City Council and has been meeting monthly since July.

The council formed the committee June 29 to investigate policing following protests over police brutality sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the creation of a Black Lives Matter mural in downtown Port Townsend for a Juneteenth commemoration that drew more than 1,000 people.

Monday marked the committee’s third of what was planned to be five total monthly meetings — largely focused on information gathering — culminating in a final report produced by the end of the year that the City Council would use when considering policy changes at a scheduled council meeting.

The ad hoc committee is not to take action, even though it has a quorum of council members on it.

On Monday, the committee decided to extend its work into January or possibly beyond in order to provide more time for discussion before creating a report, and to hear from those who are Black, indigenous or other people of color in the community, which has been a goal of the committee since its creation.

The committee’s next meeting has been moved from Nov. 23 to Nov. 30, during which it is set to learn more about collective bargaining and qualified immunity, and committees will for the first time discuss policy proposals that could end up the final report.

On Monday, the committee heard from Lori Fleming, co-CEO of the Jefferson County Community Health Improvement Plan and director of the more recently established Behavioral Health Consortium, which in September received a $1 million grant to be used over three years from the federal Rural Communities Opioid Response Program.

That consortium aims to boost prevention, treatment and recovery services for those with substance-use and opioid-use disorders.

Grant funds will go toward Dove House Advocacy Service’s Recovery Cafe, a south county syringe exchange program, consultation on the feasibility of a crisis stabilization facility and a plan to address stigma associated with addiction and mental illness.

The committee also heard from Surber, who discussed the police department’s use of force as well as its use of Lexipol, a private company that provides policy manuals, training bulletins and consulting services to more than 8,100 agencies worldwide.

Between 2017 and 2019, officers responded to 34,502 calls for service, he said, resulting in 42 instances of force being used, six of which resulted in injury. The department has not had an in-custody death since 1995, Surber said.

So far this year, the department has had five instances of force being used, he said, crediting the department’s crisis intervention training program, which prioritizes de-escalation and behavior modification.

“We’ve increased our de-escalation training,” Surber said. “We try to spend as much time as possible when we’re dealing with someone in crisis … to find solutions.”

The police department has used Lexipol since 2013. Surber said it streamlines policy manual updates and basic training requirements for all officers.

The use of Lexipol will cost the city more than $16,000 in 2021, he said, but the cost of not using it and instead relying on staff resources to do the same work would cost nearly $155,000.

“To replicate this work, it would require over 128 hours per month of city employee time,” he said, noting that the consistent nature of the policies it provides and maintains also protects the city from costly liabilities.

“It can only take one major lawsuit based on an out-of-date policy to cause the city major financial issues.”

Mayor Michelle Sandoval said she has concerns about the product being “one size fits all.”

“With the main goal of staying out of court, I think that’s probably a good thing,” she said, “but I don’t know that, for the health and safety of our community, that that’s the mission.”

Surber said the department can incorporate unique local policies into Lexipol. However, he said any adjustments to policies locally have been minor, typically referencing city code.

“I do believe the training we do in crisis intervention and de-escalation, balanced out with Lexipol, gets us the product our community wants,” he said.

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Jefferson County senior reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by phone at 360-417-3509 or by email at njohnson@peninsuladailynews.com.

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