Poulsbo's Public Safety & Legal Committee held a meeting via Zoom last week. Courtesy photo

Poulsbo businesses victims of recent crime

Harding: lack of staffing, recent law changes hinder department

During last week’s Public Safety & Legal Committee meeting for the City of Poulsbo, the owner of Liberty Bay Auto Center asked for solutions to a recent crime wave that has affected his business and others.

The business’s owner, Dean Church, stated that two cars were stolen off his lot in the last month and that at least 10 fuel tanks have been either drilled or gas siphoned out of vehicles. He mentioned one of the cars stolen was his son’s, and that it was “totaled” during the crime. The other stolen car was a customer’s that they ended up recovering. Before those recent incidents, Church said only two cars had been stolen off his lot in 32 years.

He also mentioned “major drug-dealing issues” that have been occurring at Fish Park and underneath the bridge, which is right behind his dealership. This past weekend, the park was vandalized but has since been cleaned up by public works. Church also said Dairy Queen was recently broken into and the new hotel Fairfield Inn & Suites also have seen “massive thefts.”

“We have some real grave concerns about the security of Poulsbo, not necessarily just for ourselves but for everybody else in the public and other businesses,” Church said.

He said the dealership has hired a security company to protect employee and customer vehicles along with the vehicles for sale. Security is there from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and costs $6,500 a month.

“My concern is what’s going to happen next,” he said. “Are we going to have homeless camps right in front of city hall? Are crimes increasing? The City of Poulsbo’s kind of getting to be known as an easy target for these thefts. A majority of them aren’t even from our town. The problem is our police department, basically, the handcuffs are on them, not the bad guys.”

Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson said the city doesn’t have enough people for the police department to effectively do their jobs and respond to these crimes. She mentioned that the city is “trying desperately to fill positions and get people trained,” and that there are a few officers out on disability with Labor and Industries issues.

“The City of Poulsbo, while it is only about 12,000 people, is policing about 40,000 people,” Erickson said. “It’s a systemic problem that comes from the Growth Management Act, where we concentrate growth and job creation in a very small space and yet we have people coming from outside of our jurisdiction into our city for goods and services. There is a systemic problem with lack of funding when we’re such a small property tax base and retail tax base to support a population of our size. I don’t know what the answer is, I think we need more cops.”

Poulsbo Police Chief Ron Harding pointed out that recent legislative changes regarding law enforcement have hindered their ability to do “proactive investigations in a way that we used to be able to do.”

“We used to have a standard called ‘reasonable suspicion’ that would allow us certain leeway in investigations that was taken away by the new law,” he said. “What we have to operate from now is ‘probable cause,’ which means that we have enough evidence and eyewitness statements to confirm that a crime has been committed. The ability to address the crime that occurred for us now happens after it occurred.”

Harding also stated that staffing is a big issue as lateral transfers take about four months before they’re on duty, and new hires take about a year. Erickson said the state of Washington should consider alternative training processes to help expedite the time it takes to get new hires in service. Church mentioned adding extra police backup so they can respond to these crimes better but Harding said they haven’t had much success with a reserve program because it’s voluntary and takes a lot of time and effort.

“I share your frustration with some of the proactive work that we used to be able to do,” Harding told Church. “The big issue is staffing and trying to cover the footprint that we have. We’re not trying to hand out excuses, we want to catch these guys.”

Lastly, Harding urged citizens to contact the legislature and activate support groups about some of the recent law enforcement changes. “There was some well-intended desire for some of that law change to advance some equitable situations but the unintended consequences are that cops now are taking a far less proactive approach to address crime,” he said.

“I’m trying to be patient about this but I think we’re running into a real problem,” Church concluded. “I’m curious what our elected officials are going to do to protect our citizens. Heaven forbid that the citizens and business owners start taking matters into their own hands. I also do think that our police officers do need to have the ability to do the job that they’ve been hired to do, and that’s protect us all.”

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