Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson gave her annual “State of the City” presentation at the City Council meeting Jan. 13 and tried to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?”
The presentation covered a range of topics from the city’s ongoing efforts to combat COVID-19 to addressing the lingering tension between the city and the Suquamish Tribe, along with the city’s continued efforts to address housing, infrastructure and mental health.
“This is something that I do every year, which is to kind of give an overview of what I see has happend in the city and where we are going in the future,” she said.
One of the first things Erickson addressed was the July 3, 2019, shooting death of Stonechild Chiefstick by Poulsbo police officer Craig Keller. “Even though that incident has been now, almost a year and half ago, it still kind of colors a lot of the things we are doing,” Erickson said.
In April of 2020, Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright, seven months after receiving investigation materials, concluded that Keller had acted in accordance with law and would not face criminal charges. Five months later, following an internal investigation, Keller, who had been on paid administrative leave, returned to work.
That decison came as the country was entering into month four of national protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement, inextricably tying Poulsbo to the larger national conversation on police brutality and racism.
“It was a kind of a pivotal moment in our city. Things kind of changed, and I think in a sense of almost our innocense as a community disappeared,” Erickson said.
The decisions further strained the relationship between the city and Tribe.
The city has been working with the Tribe and others to make it is a more welcoming place to all people. Months of testimony following the July 3 incident showed that people of color, both in and outside of Poulsbo, did not feel welcome in the city.
Not only has this incident weighed heavily on the the city, but it was compounded by impacts of the pandemic.
“It’s kind of like, well where do we go from here? The elephant in the room is about social justice, equity and pandemic,” Erickson said. “We’ve had some very big kind of cosmic things happen to our beautiful little town in the last eighteen months…These things have colored a lot of the decisions we have made in city government, and I think that it had brought a new awareness, some anxiety and a lot of stress.”
When fromer Police Chief Dan Schoonmaker retired in August, the city replaced him with Ron Harding from Redmond, who has already begun making changes to the department and has been working closely with the Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribes to rebuild trust.
“Ron has been having great conversations with the Suquamish Tribe…We’re trying to heal that relationship, and he’s been doing a fabulous job about it,” Erickson said.
Harding has already made moves to restructure the department, starting with eliminating the deputy chief position in favor of two lieutenant positions – one to oversee operations and the other administration. Harding would also like to hire four more sergeants to increase patrol supervising.
While nationally and locally there have been calls to defund police, Erickson said she favors the opposite.
“What we need to do for our police department is better training, more cops and better introductions to mental health and addiction problems,” she said.
Councilmember Dave Musgrove noted that for police to receive more training there needs to be more officers because the city still needs police on the streets.
“It’s not just dollars it’s additional officers,” he said.
The city has been able to hire a full-time Navigator thanks to a grant. Police can call a Navigator when they come across people with addiction or mental health issues. The city had previouly been sharing one with Bainbridge Island police.
The city and Poulsbo Fire Department also have developed the Fire CARES program. Also known as the Community Assistance, Referral and Education Service, it is the fire department’s version of the the Navigator program.
The biggest difference between the two programs is firefighters can provide medical care to those in crisis, while law enforcement cannot.
The city has worked hard to keep everyone safe and support local businesses during COVID. A new group was formed – the Housing, Health and Human Services Committee – and has spent most of its time responding to the pandemic, from Personal Protective Equipment distribution to converting the parking garage in City Hall into a testing site.
“My hope is that when they loosen up the supply of vaccines, we will be doing vaccinations in our City Hall Garage,” Erickson said.
The H3 committee is working on a volunteer program to get retired medical personnel to help distribute and administer COVID-19 vaccines.
“We hope that mass vaccinations will be happening in a couple months,” Erickson said.