From hiring challenges to Hwy 99 to homelessness, new police chief addresses community questions

Edmonds Police Chief Michelle Bennett

Edmonds residents Monday afternoon got an “up close” and very personal briefing from Edmonds’ new police chief, Michelle Bennett.

Three dozen attended the Edmonds Civic Roundtable-sponsored forum at the Waterfront Center. No question was off limits. People asked about hiring new officers, more police presence on Highway 99 and community outreach; they asked about if the city will see more homeless, about the Edmonds “hate crime” reporting portal, and cops in schools.

Bennett told the audience that “it’s important for me to be available to all of you.” Bennett, hired by the city in August, comes with more than 30 years of experience — as a King County Sheriff deputy, as police chief in Maple Valley and then chief in Sammamish. She thought she had ended her career as a King County Sheriff’s Department major last December and joked that she “failed” at retirement; saying she spent just 61 days retired before Edmonds brought her on as acting chief this past March, and now permanently.

Attendees gather at the Edmonds Waterfront Center Monday to hear from Police Chief Michelle Bennett.

Staffing was the first question up. Edmonds has nine — soon to be 10 — vacant officer positions and several openings on the civilian side. Edmonds is supposed to have 54 officers, and nearly 20 civilian staff.

“What are you doing about new officers?”

“We’re hiring as much as we possibly can,” she said, but added that getting new officers on the street can take almost a year. An example: The department had a pool of 40 candidates – but only two passed background checks. Bennett told the group that the department is not “changing any hiring standards at all”; that stringent background checks are very important. She pointed out that once EPD hires a rookie, there are often delays of several months getting them into the state policing academy. And when they do get in, that course lasts five more months.

“Can you hire experienced officers from other cities?”

Bennett said Edmonds is trying to do that, but the city is at a disadvantage. A number of other cities offer hiring bonuses to attract veteran officers; Everett is offering $30,000, Seattle $25,000, Mukilteo has put up $15,000. Edmonds has never had a “signing bonus.” But, the Chief says she is working with the city council, mayor and human resources to create a bonus pool, “to at least be competitive.” The council would make a final decision on that.

“What about officer morale?”

Bennett was candid – “I basically came in with no chief, no assistant chiefs, in the middle of a social justice review and a police audit.” She  has told her staff, “I can’t fix anything that happened before me; but we are moving forward.” That’s what she says officers are also telling her, and she responds, “let’s move forward and let’s be a part of that discussion.”

“What’s going to happen with police presence on Highway 99?”

Approved city office/police office location at 236th Street Southwest and Highway 99

Several years ago, a suggestion was made to move the entire police department out of the Edmonds Bowl and build a headquarters along Highway 99. That never got political traction. But, EPD is stationing its new community engagement officer, Tabitha Shoemake, at a combined city and police neighborhood office in the Safeway complex at 236th Street Southwest. (link to new highway 99 city office story)

Shoemake recently told My Edmonds News that “Edmonds doesn’t stop at the Bowl, and I’ll be working to ensure that everyone feels included. Part of this is going up on Highway 99 and engaging with immigrants and others who may not speak English as their first language. I want to help everyone understand that EPD is here to help, and that we can be trusted.”

Tabatha Shoemake (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Bennett expects Shoemake will be a resource for the neighborhood, “especially for communities that don’t feel they are being heard.” The chief cautioned, though, that the city council really is the driving force for how effective that new city office and the related Highway 99 revitalization project will be; she cautioned that change would come slowly over a period of years

“What about community policing and outreach?”

Bennett said “we (the department) are trying to change the culture, the way we have done things in the past. We are asking to be part of community events; asking ‘how can we get involved?'”

Bennett wants to restore a police dive team to better serve the waterfront, she wants new training programs for volunteers, to expand the Police Explorer program, to restore a community “Police Academy” to show residents what the department does, and how

Bennett has met with Edmonds School Superintendent Dr. Gustavo Balderas to talk about how to reconnect students with police, after the district removed the school liaison officers. She said the district is “not quite ready to remove their decision,” but is supportive of exploring a new partnership.

“Could we use trained volunteers rather than officers to respond to less-serious incidents?”

Bennett put it this way: “The problem with someone in mental distress is that they are in a mental crisis.” She believes officers still must first secure and stabilize situations, then bring in outside experts. She favors a “team approach” as a better way to meet the needs of the community rather than making even trained civilians “first responders.”

“Do the state’s new police laws make cops’ jobs harder?”

In a word: “Yes” — she said — some of the new laws do. Bennett cited changes that make it harder for officers to stop someone who may be involved in a crime based on an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” (a professional hunch) versus “probable cause” (evidence). Police now can only chase suspects in the case of a life-threatening felony; they can no longer use some of the so-called “less lethal” weapons such as bean bag guns. She hopes lawmakers will reconsider some of the perhaps “unintended consequences” of the new laws. “It is a huge safety deal; you’re putting people at risk,” she said.

“Will we see more homeless here and what will you do?”

The chief said as cities like Seattle begin to crack down, the problem usually moves to another community. “It’s not illegal to be homeless,” Bennett pointed out, “but it is not legal to pitch a tent. We can only help someone who wants help.” The department has a fund to offer emergency shelter to those in need, and officers use it.  She said since she’s been here, she knows of about five people who refused help.

The chief would support passage of what she called a “healthy living ordinance” to keep homeless camps from springing up; that it is not safe for people to live “on the street.” The council, added the chief, can decide what the city is willing to tolerate or can put an ordinance into effect. Edmonds does not have such a law; although people are not allowed to camp on city park property.

What are you hearing about what’s on the so-called “hate portal”?

“I have no professional opinion about the hate portal,” Bennett said, referring to the city’s online system developed for residents to report possible hate or bias crimes.

Other topics: Body cams, police safety and traffic cameras

– The city launches its police body camera program next week – no other details were mentioned.

– Expect significant changes to parking lot security at the public safety complex. Bennett said she was “shocked” there is no fence or controlled access to the police lot. Police stations, she added, have become more of a target. There is, for example “zero protection when you bring in a suspect” – no secure area in which to unload them. She pointed out that 55 times in recent years, police cars have been damaged in the lot, from nails in tires to splattered paint, to dings from skateboarders. Bennett said there are also close calls daily when pedestrians wander through the lot.

– Oh, and if she can, Chief Bennett made it clear that she would like to see traffic cameras at every school crossing; in fact, “I would make all traffic infractions covered by cameras.” Traffic issues, she added, are the number-one complaint the city gets. Fair warning.

— By Bob Throndsen

  1. Having attended this event and listening to the Chief, It sure sounds to me like she is exactly what we want both in terms of a commanding officer and a police person in general. I thought her answers in relation to, what makes the new police legislation problematical for the police, were especially well thought out and presented.

  2. I have had nothing but positive interactions with Chief Bennet (and really, all of the EPD). There is no doubt in my mind that she was the correct choice for our city moving forward. Take note of the times that she is candid on where the council needs to make decisions on the direction of the city. Many times – but not all – the response I have received from the council on many of the issues listed here but primarily around the homelessness and HWY99 problems is that it is an “administrative issue.” They tend to deflect when hard but necessary solutions need to be looked at, like the healthy living ordinance. With Seattle clearly voicing their opinion about the direction they would like to go, which is to clean the city up and to make it safer for residents be that clearing encampments or improving public safety, you better believe that some of those issues will migrate to the periphery with those individuals who will refuse services, Edmonds included. It would behoove us to be proactive vs. reactionary. Thankfully, with the new makeup of the city council particularly with Will Chen who lives and works near HWY99, those discussions and decisions should not be disguised as “not an Edmonds problem” any longer.

  3. The laughter in the room and refusal to comment on the hate portal made me want to run out of the room and cry. Try being a person of color, gay or lesbian, disabled, or just being different in this city. In this room filled with mostly mainstream able bodied white, I don’t expect you be able to identify what I’ve experienced. You think people like me should not have a safe place to report discrimination, bias, or hate. I’ve admired our new chief of police. Now I’m notsure she and her department has my back.

  4. I think the group laughter was related more to the Chief not wanting to touch a politically charged topic than some sort of racial or ethnic commentary on her or the audiences part. She has to please people both for and against the hate portal concept. I do see your point that the sponsoring ERT group is not representative of a broad cross section of the Edmonds population (at this point in time anyway). In fairness, I think they would like to change that for the better over time.

  5. Thank you MEN for this excellent coverage, making it feel as if I had been there.

    With regard to her remark that she “failed at retirement,” I certainly get the impression that she has no interest in sitting idle. Not only from her responses in this forum, but at the same time Edmonds was courting her, so was Tukwila — they were down to 2 finalists, their interim chief, and Chief Bennett!

    I am looking forward to seeing the fruits of the energy and momentum she’s bringing, including helping to retain officers who may otherwise be enticed away by a bonus from a neighboring department.

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