OLYMPIA - By the end of newly appointed Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts' meeting with about 25 South Capitol neighborhood residents in Lincoln Elementary School's cafeteria Thursday night, he had won one round of applause and several compliments from audience members impressed with his willingness to listen.
“There’s no substitute for that kind of open communication with residents,” said South Capitol Neighborhood Association President Jeanne Marie Thomas.
She added that Roberts’ ideas for community engagement with police, such as improving the city’s website to allow for online reporting of petty crimes and to hold monthly “coffees” with residents to learn about their concerns, also were impressive.
Roberts sat behind a desk, alone, before members of the neighborhood association during the meeting. He fielded questions and spoke candidly about a range of topics, such as a rash of vehicle prowls in the South Capitol neighborhood in February and growing up as one of nine siblings in a home beset by domestic violence and alcoholism.
Roberts, 49, also said that during his tenure, communication with residents will always be a two-way street, and that the department will strive to respond to their needs and concerns.
Roberts said that since starting on the job about six weeks ago, he has interviewed nearly every member of the department. He said he still is taking inventory of the department, but so far, he said he is impressed with the commitment and professionalism of both the officers and civilian staff members.
The Police Department is poised for change. This month, it will move into its new headquarters at the new City Hall on Fourth Avenue. By the end of the month, longtime Olympia police Cmdr. Tor Bjornstad will retire. Bjornstad, who acts as a media spokesman, said he will cede that duty to Roberts.
NEW IN TOWN
Roberts arrived in Olympia on Jan. 10 after being selected by City Manager Steve Hall to replace former Police Chief Gary Michel, who retired in September after serving 13 years. Roberts was chief of the Redmond Police Department in Oregon. Before that, he worked for the Eugene, Ore., Police Department from 1986 to 2007, rising from patrol officer to lieutenant.
Roberts’ salary is $140,455, the same as former Chief Michel’s.
Roberts said he sees many similarities between Eugene and Olympia: Both are culturally diverse, mid-sized cities with a strong network of neighborhood associations and bustling downtowns that need walking patrols. He added that historically, Eugene and Olympia both have presented the same challenges to law enforcement in responding to protests and acts of civil disobedience.
Roberts said that as he implements change, he wants to reinforce the message of community policing among officers so they’re not just responding to calls but are taking a proactive approach toward crime prevention.
“When we see a problem, we’re going to direct resources toward it,” he said. “ We need to operate with specific intent.”
Roberts was blunt about the economic downturn’s effect on the city resources and how financial issues place limits on police. During a phone interview Friday, he said the department recently had to remove a detective from the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force because of budget constraints. He added Thursday night that there simply are not enough officers available during peak hours to have one respond personally to every call for lower-level crimes.
Roberts said Thursday night that long-term goals for the department are to develop partnerships with public agencies such as code enforcement, and with private social service agencies. Partnerships with social service agencies could help improve quality-of-life issues such as problems with public drunkenness downtown, he said.
He also told residents that he hopes they can serve as extra pairs of eyes and ears.
“We have a city of informants; we just need to develop the relationships so we can get that information,” he said.
Residents in attendance included Karla Shaw and her husband, Neil, who moved to the South Capitol neighborhood from Tumwater about five months ago. Karla Shaw said she attended because “I just like to know my local police,” adding “I don’t like graffiti.”
Others, such as Joanne McCaughan, had specific issues with the department. McCaughan said crime has been on the rise in the neighborhood. She added that last year, her family’s boat motor was stolen from outside her house. She said the department’s response to that crime and other calls was disappointing.
Roberts told the assembled audience that he enjoys meeting with residents and that they can expect to see him, probably in uniform.
“I am somebody who likes to be out,” he said.
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465 email@example.com