BI chief: How we’re trying to avoid woes of nationwide police

Bainbridge Island Police Chief Joe Clark has been on the job a few months now, but with COVID-19 restricting meetings, there have not been many opportunities for community engagement.

A two-hour Virtual Town Hall on Public Safety held Sept. 30 helped open those lines of communication as Clark answered questions and presented his views on policing, what the department does and changes to be made that will help the department meet community expectations.

Clark is one of six new hires since August 2019, accounting for 25 percent of the BIPD. He moved to the island this year after spending 34 years in the Norfolk Police Department in Virginia and said the community has been “fantastic,” noting the level of engagement and number of people willing to be generous with their time.

“That’s the kind of community I like,” Clark said. “Involved and willing to help each other out.”

Clark referred to 2020 as “a challenging year” as communities are rightly asking questions about their police departments and their role in serving citizens. The chief said he hasn’t received any pushback from his department as he laid out his vision of policing, which he considers a public service. “It’s my job to make sure we meet those expectations as a department.”

Clark said he is open to looking at other ways to handle certain responsibilities, such as having a harbormaster and a parking enforcement officer who are not police officers.

“If we keep doing things the same way, we’ll get the same results,” Clark said. “And so we have to try new ideas, and we have to try new approaches” if people want to see changes.

There is a proposal for a behavioral health navigator to be hired instead of filling a vacant police officer role with the goal of serving as a better bridge between the community and police. The navigator would direct folks to community resources to assist with mental health issues or follow up with domestic violence victims, help them deal with the investigative process and offer victim advocacy.

It is believed that approach would better put victims at ease as they may have more anxiety if they had to discuss such issues with a police officer. Generally, up to 6% of BIPD calls fall under the category of behavioral health or domestic issues.

“Having someone they might feel more comfortable talking with I think opens up that conversation and provides some continuity and understanding; someone who can explain the process as it moves forward,” Clark said.

Other topics discussed at the town hall included racial bias, use of force and police culture.

Clark has spoken previously about the recklessness that has led to high-profile deaths at the hands of the police nationwide. He attributes that to the culture and the difficulty of leadership getting their message through in large police departments. At BIPD, with such a small agency, it’s easier for Clark to have consistent interactions with officers, he said.

“When you have 700-800 officers, it’s hard to have some kind of personal interaction with each one,” Clark said. “Sometimes you have officers that have been around a long time, and they have certain beliefs about how things should be done, and it’s hard to change that. But that’s where you, as a chief, have to be selective in your hiring, making sure you find people that share that same attitude, that same commitment and you build your agency that way.”

BIPD has a one-year probationary period to make sure each hired officer is a fit for the community, Clark said.

Clark also gave an overview of some of the training BIPD officers have gone through regarding racial bias. The state’s training center is developing a course on the historical intersection of police and race, and officers attended implicit bias training last fall, and will do so again this year.

Clark took classes when he was an officer in Norfolk that he thought were extremely helpful as they were framed within the historical context of the city.

The department has also invested in a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training course, which teaches communication skills and an understanding of how a mentally ill person might respond. It also touches on use-of-force issues as it teaches tactics that are less aggressive. Every officer will attend, Clark said.

In terms of policy, BIPD teaches a model that allows officers to create time and distance to work from a safe place to explore alternatives to force. Doing so helps slow down and deescalate situations. A first draft of policies is expected to be released by the department by the end of the week.

Clark also made it clear that Bainbridge Island officers are required to intervene if witnessing another officer using excessive force.

“There is in our policy a duty to intervene and report to a supervisor,” Clark said. “That’s a requirement, that’s an expectation. And yes, someone that didn’t intervene and was in a position to do so would be subject to discipline just as the officer involved in the situation of the excessive force.”