Lakewood police look beyond their grief

LAKEWOOD - The task for Lakewood police sounds simple enough: Continue to protect the second-largest city in Pierce County as they have since the department was founded five years ago.

But much attention since Nov. 29 has focused on grieving and remembering four officers slain at a Parkland coffee shop: Sgt. Mark Renninger, and officers Tina Griswold, Ronald Owens and Greg Richards.

The public grief culminated a week ago with a memorial service at the Tacoma Dome that was larger and as emotional as any ever seen in Washington.

Now, one practical matter Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar must address is how and when to fill the jobs held by the officers who were gunned down by Maurice Clemmons.

“We have four open positions that we’re going to need to fill,” Farrar said Thursday in his office, where four black ribbons used in the officers’ memorial ceremony hung on a wall. “We’re going to look at our hiring lists and see who’s qualified for the job.”

Most likely, he said, the department will begin the search early next year.

Getting an officer on the street takes more than making a job offer. Even if the department fills the vacant positions internally, four other officers will have to be replaced. The new recruits most likely will attend training for about a year, during which the city will pay their wages.

“We are now just starting to think about that,” said assistant chief Mike Zaro.

Before the shootings, Lakewood had 103 commissioned police officers with no vacancies, Farrar said. It has backfilled the shifts that the four officers worked by paying overtime. Outside police agencies also donated services, including traffic control at the police station memorial and patrolling the streets of Lakewood during the Dec. 8 ceremony. But they have since returned to their own communities.

Lakewood will continue paying overtime next year, although officials said the extra time probably won’t push the Police Department beyond its proposed budget. Farrar said he’s also considering shifting officers to help fill occasional gaps on general patrol.

Farrar said he hasn’t heard of any of the remaining 99 officers having to take leave to deal with their grief. In fact, on the day the four were killed, off-duty officers checked into headquarters ready to cover for their fallen comrades.

The Police Department offers counseling and other help if officers need to talk to someone about the shootings.

Next year’s Lakewood city budget calls for staffing 103 officers. That won’t change.

“For us not to fill the police positions would be equivalent to cutting the police budget,” Lakewood City Manager Andrew Neiditz said. “We are not going to do that.”

Lakewood’s public safety budget is $19.7 million next year, roughly half of the city’s total $37.1 million spending plan. About $14 million pays for police salaries and benefits. That’s a little more than what the Lakewood City Council approved in police salaries and personnel in the 2009 budget.

Meanwhile, other police agencies are having to trim staff and expenses. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department will lose 15 deputies next year.

Neiditz and other city leaders say they haven’t set a timeline for Farrar to fill the four openings.

“The Lakewood City Council is going to provide the budget to the citizens that we said we were going to provide,” Mayor Doug Richardson said.

Farrar stressed at the Tacoma Dome memorial that his officers will never forget their co-workers and friends. As of Monday, the department hadn’t erased the white duty board from the four officers’ last shift. Their pictures are framed in the lobby area. The police union continues to raise money for the families. Officers still wear black bars of mourning across their badges.

Despite their hurt, Lakewood police are resolved to do their jobs.

Sgt. Mark Eakes said the saddest episode in the department’s young history has left officers with a lot of emotions. Still, the outpouring of support has helped them endure the tragedy and do their jobs.

“There are still people hurting other people out there, and we still have got to protect them,” he said.