For the first time in more than three years, the Olympia Police Department has an officer dedicated exclusively to walking patrols — or as weather permits, bike patrols — serving the downtown area.
Longtime Olympia Police Officer Jeff Herbig said that since he started downtown patrols June 4, he’s made a point of stopping to introduce himself to everyone he sees, from business owners, to the people he passes by on the sidewalks — including the street people that typically congregate at the artesian well or near the Intercity Transit station.
“Everybody gets a meet and greet,” Herbig said. “The people I might arrest or have some law-enforcement action with today may be a person who can assist me in some other police issue down the road, so I have to keep that interaction positive.”
The mere visibility of an officer walking on foot or pedaling a bike is a psychological boost for downtown, and can act as a deterrent for all sorts of nuisance crimes from littering to public drinking and loitering, said Herbig. Accessibility to the public is key, he added.
Sarah Adams, owner of Psychic Sister, the vintage clothing store on Fifth Avenue that also offers tarot card readings, said she’s had nothing but good vibes from Herbig since he’s been on the job. Adams added that Herbig already has helped her resolve issues that have come up with her business, which opened last year.
“On his first day on the job I saw him talking to folks who were watering up at the well,” she said. “He’s got the friendliness and the sensitivity to be a positive presence downtown.”
Callie Carpenter, manager of the Starbucks across from Sylvester Park, said she sees Herbig at least once a day, and if she has any problems at the shop, she calls Herbig directly.
“He’s such a great guy,” she said. “He’s really sweet, and if we have any problems, he’s always here.”
Herbig said the reinstated bike patrol is crucial to help build relationships between the police department and the people who live and work downtown. As local business owners become more familiar with seeing and chatting with him every day, they know they can reach out to him for help with all sorts of issues, he said. And for Herbig, a longtime Olympia resident who graduated from Olympia High School in 1986, making friends with locals downtown gives him more eyes and ears on the streets.
“That is the heart of community policing,” Herbig said.
Back in the early 2000s, the Olympia Police Department had as many as four officers dedicated to full-time walking patrols. But due to budget cuts, walking patrols downtown had stopped completely by 2010.
The program was reintroduced for consideration in 2012, and Olympia voters subsequently approved a measure to increase the local sales tax to fund public-safety needs. OPD spokeswoman Laura Wohl said the Olympia Downtown Association and the Parking & Business Improvement Area worked with OPD to help define the duties of the new downtown officer position. After the sales tax took effect this year, Herbig volunteered for job. Herbig patrols downtown Tuesdays through Fridays from roughly 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Herbig’s downtown patrols already have made a difference, Darren Mills, owner of boutique salon Frida, said. The entrance to Frida between Fourth and Fifth avenues faces an alleyway which has been a longtime trouble spot where drug users congregate, Mills said. Since Herbig started his patrols in June, the drug activity in the alley has noticeably decreased, Mills said.
“Since Jeff started, just having that presence downtown is sending the message that these hot spots where it’s easy to gather aren’t out of view anymore,” Mills said.
Mills, who chairs Olympia’s Parking & Business Improvement Area, or PBIA, said Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts, who took over the reins of the department in 2011, has been instrumental in helping reinstate the downtown walking/bike patrol.
“He understands the need, and I think, fought for us as a business community,” Mills said. “Downtown foot patrol is an investment, it’s not just an expense.”
As the revenue from the new sales tax builds, OPD hopes to add a second downtown walking patrol officer in 2014, Wohl said.
Jo Gallaugher, owner of the Matter Gallery downtown and a PBIA board member said she’s been impressed with Herbig’s manner with both shop owners and the public.
A reporter joined Herbig during a recent morning bike patrol through Olympia’s downtown. During Herbig’s rounds, he encountered a man sleeping in the entryway of Capital City Guitars, and told him to move along because he was in violation of the pedestrian-interference ordinance. Herbig said it was the man’s second warning. Herbig also cleaned up litter near the Intercity Transit Center, and told the owner of D.G. Parrott & Son Machinists how to contact the Downtown Ambassadors to get assistance with a graffiti cleanup outside his business.
“We’re glad to see him and I’ll tell you we’ve missed these guys walking around,” owner Steve Parrott said. “He’s doing a hell of a job.”
Downtown Ambassadors Program Manager Rob Richards confirmed that his organization has worked closely with Herbig, who even attended a staff meeting. The Downtown Ambassadors program has been in place for about a year, with its crews walking downtown to do everything from helping clean up sidewalks to giving directions to tourists. Richards said that from seeing Herbig in action, it’s obvious he takes issues like littering and other “nuisance” crimes personally because it’s his hometown and he has a stake in the community.
“He’s like the old beat cop who patrolled his neighborhood,” Richards said.
On Friday morning, Herbig said he arrested two men as they shot up heroin in the downtown alleyway between Capitol Way and Washington Street. Later, he helped the Water Street Cafe deal with a man who was experiencing paranoia due to narcotics use, and then gave directions to a young couple as they walked through the park at Capitol Lake.
Herbig said his visibility pedaling on his mountain bike downtown has a calming effect on the street people he encounters. The mobility a bike offers also allows Herbig to weave easily in and out of sidewalks, in alleyways and over parking lots. Some of the street people Herbig sees downtown have been surprised to see him, he added.
“What they joke about is that I’m sneaking up on them all the time,” Herbig said. “They can’t ever get comfortable knowing where you’re at.”
Herbig said it is not his intention to sneak up on anyone — that’s why he volunteered to wear a bright-yellow fluorescent shirt while he’s on bike patrols. He said the brightly colored shirt is important in that if someone needs him, he’s easy to find.
Herbig said he has ordered some rainy-weather gear so that, hopefully, he can stay on his bike as much as possible.
“My goal is to stay on the bike throughout the year,” he said.
One of the pleasant surprises of the new job, Herbig said, has been the response from business owners and even the people he passes by on the streets.
“I’m actually surprised at how appreciative the public is,” Herbig said.Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445 firstname.lastname@example.org