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Behind the scenes, Lacey Police Department is a ‘mess,’ union says

“It’s the officers that make this department shine. Our...chief needs to give a little more loyalty back to those officers.”

Lacey police union president Ken Kollmann and the officers he represents are concerned about what they perceive as a lack support from leadership.
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Lacey police union president Ken Kollmann and the officers he represents are concerned about what they perceive as a lack support from leadership.

To the public, it might appear that things are fine among the 36 patrol officers of the Lacey Police Department.

Officers regularly appear at public events, and the city does a nice job of recognizing officers at Lacey City Council meetings, said Lacey police officers guild president Ken Kollmann, an 18-year-veteran of the department.

But behind the scenes, Kollmann is blunt about the realities of the department.

“It’s a mess,” said Kollmann, 54.

And that’s where the guild and city differ: Kollmann is deeply concerned about the internal operations of the department. City officials, while acknowledging that public safety is important and that public safety needs are evaluated every year, say they have been over these issues and that it’s time to move on and focus on the community.

The guild is airing its frustrations, Lacey City Manager Scott Spence said. He called it a “hangover” from what both sides agree was a long and protracted labor contract negotiation that ended earlier this year.

Negotiations began in mid-2017and the last contract expired at the end of the year, but negotiations continued into 2018 until a two-year contract, with a 3.5 percent wage increase for officers, was signed in May.

Kollmann said the negotiation process was “brutal.” It required a mediator and almost went to binding arbitration, he said. City Manager Spence said most of that time was spent discussing a change in health care plans.

Kollmann acknowledged that health care was part of the discussion, but he says he had other pressing concerns about morale, poor communication, a need for more officers as the city grows, and unsafe working conditions.

The guild has filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor and Industries about a shooting range previously used by law enforcement throughout the area. The range, owned by the city of Olympia, now operates on a limited basis for certain kinds of training.

“The contract is over,” Kollmann said. “This is about leadership, working conditions; this is about safety for our officers.”

The guild also wanted more from police Chief Dusty Pierpoint. Kollmann said Pierpoint has always been loyal to the city, but Kollmann wished he had “shaved off a little loyalty” for his officers.

Now, it’s a moot point because Pierpoint has announced he will retire in October after 13 years as chief and more than 30 years with the department.

Kollmann said the guild does not want the next chief to come from within the department because the department needs outside perspective.

“That has been our stance for many, many years,” he said.

Despite the city’s and guild’s differences, the sides agree that Lacey police continue to do a good job of keeping overall crime rates low, according to city data.

Data for 2017 show that the city’s crime rate per 1,000 population was 65 incidents, below the state average of 69.1. The violent crime rate was 3.3 incidents, also below the state average of 3.7.

“We have a great department, great police officers and the community is well served,” Spence said.

Every year, 10 children from the Lacey Boys & Girls Club get to join the Lacey Police Department for Shop with a Cop.

Survey shows low morale

During contract negotiations, Kollmann presented the results of a survey of officer morale, which had a 92 percent response rate.

Of those who responded, nearly 80 percent said morale was low. Nearly half rated stress and conflict within the department as very high, and 84 percent felt that command staff do not set the right example for officers.

The survey also included a range of anonymous comments from officers.

“Communication is extremely poor,” said one officer. “There is a lack of leadership from the administration. I question if they truly know what leadership is.”

Yet after presenting his findings, Kollmann was stunned when the survey was met with silence and simply filed away.

“Not a word from HR, or the chief,” Kollmann said. “It’s like they bury their heads in the sand and don’t acknowledge it.”

Months later, though, the chief did meet with Kollmann to talk about it.

When questioned by a reporter about the survey, Chief Pierpoint said, “Police work is very demanding and stressful and internal issues are part of this business. We will continue to work on internal issues, whatever those may be.”

He added: “In any workplace, when things break down, you can track it back to communication. And in a 24/7 police environment, someone is going to be left out of the loop. We’re constantly working on how to make it better.”

Labor & Industries complaint

The guild also filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor & Industries about a city of Olympia-owned shooting range on Martin Way used by law enforcement in the area.

A University of Washington environmental study of the range raised concerns about exposure to lead in May 2016, so the range was closed for about a year in June 2016. During that time, the range and its HVAC system were cleaned.

After the cleaning, “it began to push the air the way it needed to,” said Lt. Paul Lower, a spokesman for the Olympia Police Department.

UW then completed a second study and the range was reopened for limited use in May 2017, he said.

Police departments can’t use it for firearms training, which takes more time, but can use it for firearms qualification, a shorter process.

Olympia Deputy Police Chief Aaron Jelcick said qualification involves shooting 24 rounds at different distances, which for him, he said, takes about five minutes.

But Kollmann said a squad of Lacey officers was sent to the range in November 2017 for training, according to the guild’s L&I complaint.

When he asked questions about why, the chief attributed it to “poor communication,” the complaint reads. The guild also expressed disappointment that safety information wasn’t shared with Lacey officers, particularly female officers who might have been pregnant.

L&I did not share details of its investigation, other than that it investigated the complaint about possible lead exposure to Lacey police officers, spokesman Tim Church said.

Church said the agency has had a “closing conference” with the city.

“During a closing conference, we explain what we have found, if any citations or penalties are expected, and take any final input,” he said. “The inspection is not final until we issue our ‘Citation and Notice.’”

Church said that could happen in mid-August.

“We were comfortable with what the city of Olympia was doing with that range,” Chief Pierpoint said. “I’m not sure they have found anything wrong with the range.”

Fred Meyer security jobs

Local businesses can hire off-duty police officers, something Kroger-owned Fred Meyer took advantage of for its Sleater-Kinney Road store in Lacey in late 2016.

It became a popular detail for police. When the Fred Meyer shift schedule was posted, officers would line up to fill available spots, Kollmann said. They enjoyed the extra money and the interaction with the public, he said.

The store is unusual in that it has three exits. It also had to adjust to the city’s plastic bag ban, which meant that some customers brought their own bags, some pay for paper bags and some simply paid for their food and carried it out by hand. Or not.

Kollmann said police were hired because the store was losing $5,000 to $7,000 a week in merchandise, which was reduced to $1,900 a week after several months with officers there. The store also experienced an increase in sales after 9 p.m.

But the Fred Meyer detail ended in early 2018, much to the guild’s surprise.

The guild learned that the city had unilaterally sought more money from Kroger, but the company rejected the increase and decided to hire Washington State Patrol troopers instead, according to an unfair labor complaint the guild filed.

“The city’s desire to engage in ‘profit-taking’ on the officers’ off-duty employment assignments has resulted in a loss of work and income opportunities,” the complaint reads.

Despite charging a $70-per-hour rate for its officers, City Manager Spence defended the need for an increase to cover expenses that were running closer to $80 per hour, he said. The city is accountable to taxpayers and needs to make sure it’s covering expenses, Spence said.

However, the city did agree to notify the guild when a third party expresses concerns about the cost of an off-duty detail. It was formalized in a memorandum of understanding between the guild and city in June.

Keeping up with growth

Kollmann said the guild sees a need for more officers as the city gets closer to 50,000 people, or grows its boundaries through annexation.

“Staffing hasn’t changed in years,” he said.

Chief Pierpoint said Lacey has 36 patrol officers. Olympia, a city of similar size, has 34, with seven more on the way, Olympia police spokesman Lower said.

But adding officers is easier said than done, Pierpoint said.

Pierpoint just hired a new officer, but with additional training requirements, it will take about six months for that new recruit to be ready. And there’s a lot of competition for those who want to be in law enforcement because departments throughout the state have openings, he said.

Spence said the needs of the department are evaluated every year during budget season. For 2018, the total safety budget was $12.4 million, or 21 percent of the city’s general fund budget.

The police department’s needs have to be balanced with other needs: parks, roads, and an organization to implement them, Spence said.

But Kollmann said more must be done for officers.

“If the department and city continue to ignore officer concerns, a no-confidence vote for the entire command staff may be called for,” he said.

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