The changing face of the Olympia Police Department

When Ronnie Roberts signed on as Olympia Police Chief in 2010, he was presented with a huge problem: nearly half of his staff was about to retire.

For several years, the Olympia Police Department operated with a shoestring force while recruiting and training dozens of new officers.

“It was a huge problem for us,” Roberts said. “To have such a large turnover would be a challenge for any department. Our senior staff really had to step up. We moved detectives onto patrol, we had to eliminate our walking patrol. But we’re slowly returning to normal.”

The department is officially operating at full strength once again with 67 commissioned officers — 27 of whom were hired in the past three years, Roberts said. Four of those officers are still completing training, and an additional four are waiting to attend the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission academy.

Planning for all of the retirements was difficult, even though they were expected, said Sgt. Sam Costello.

“One body has to go out the door before another comes in,” Costello said. “It’s difficult, but that’s the way it is when you work for a city.”

Hiring new officers resulted in a much younger department. The median age for new officers is 28, while the median age for the department as a whole is 40 — nine years younger than the median age in 2010.

“When you’re dealing with 27 people who are about to retire, they’re all older,” Costello said. “We had a lot of people who were 50 or 55. So it’s been a huge age shift with the new hires.”

The youngest new hire is 22, while the oldest department employee is 63.

Roberts said the newest officers have a diverse range of experiences — some are college graduates, others worked at different police departments.

New Officer George Clark, for example, had a previous career in sporting goods manufacturing. The 33-year-old said he has friends in law enforcement and his wife works in forensics.

“I decided that it was time for a career change,” Clark said. “And listening to my wife talk about what she does really whetted my appetite.”

Twenty-two of the new hires are male, two are female. In the department as a whole, 59 officers are male and eight are female.

Twenty-two of the new hires identify as white, one identifies as hispanic and one identifies as African-American. In the department as a whole, 63 identify as white, one as Hispanic, two as African-American and one identifies as Asian or Pacific Islander.

“It’s not as diverse as I would like in terms of people of color and females,” Roberts said. “But it is diverse in terms of the experience people have. We have a lot of different perspectives.”

The new police mentality

With the new hires, the department is trying to move away from reactive policing and toward proactive policing.

“Rather than wait for crimes to happen, we have people out there dealing with the problems before they happen,” Costello said.

But seeing the effects of this method is difficult, as it’s nearly impossible to track the number of crimes that have been prevented.

Roberts said his goal is for the department to be a support system for the community, not an overwhelming presence. And focusing on prevention could help keep people out of the community’s crowded jails.

‘The old days with the goal of taking someone to jail are over,” Roberts said. “There isn’t enough room in the jail or in the courts, and quite frankly, that’s not the solution.”

Some of this can be accomplished through “hot-spot policing” — focusing on areas with high crime rates and preventing additional crimes from being committed, Roberts said.

For new officers, proactive thinking is part of the training curriculum — both at the state academy and in the Olympia Police Department’s new training model, Costello said.

Instead of providing a prescribed set of answers for a list of problems, the department gives the new officers problems and asks for the solutions, Costello said. He hopes this will teach officers to think on their feet — which can be especially important when dealing with people struggling with drug addiction and mental illness.

“There are rules and policies that govern what we do, but the difference between a great officer and a mediocre officer is their ability to predict how someone is going to react,” Costello said.

The new officers are also required to analyze and reflect on their work once they begin their Olympia Police Department training — a practice that’s a lot more “touchy-feely” than older policing models, Costello said.

“It gives them a chance to think about how they reacted in certain situations and learn from it,” Costello said. “Maybe they’ll decide they could have done better and react differently next time.”

Clark said that in his experience, training doesn’t follow the stereotypical boot camp model anymore.

“There’s less people in your face yelling, making you sit in push-up position for hours,” Clark said. “You’re learning how to look after people, to care for your community. It’s a shift from the warrior mentality to the guardian mentality.”

At the academy, he and his classmates were required to do community improvement projects. They learned that a Colorado boy had lost his police patch collection in a fire, so the classmates decided to collect new ones. Word spread, and they were able to give the boy about 500 new patches.

“It’s more about caring for people, and I think that’s something we carry over into our work,” Clark said.

This new type of policing is expected from all department personnel — not just the new hires, Costello said. And while the new mentality was formally adopted recently, older officers have been transitioning to proactive policing for years.

“I think there’s a large group of us who were doing these things before they had a name, “ Costello said. “But now it’s more formalized; it’s the expectation.”

Roberts said he expects all of his officers to adapt and operate under the new model.

“This is a learning profession,” Roberts said. “The laws change, circumstances change and we have to change with them.”

The making of an officer

To handle the influx of new officers, the Olympia Police Department had to completely change its training model. In early 2013, Roberts asked the city to create a training sergeant position, a role that went to Costello.

“We used to use a cookie-cutter training model, which worked when we were just training one or two officers,” Costello said. “But our department was uncomfortable with that on a larger scale because Olympia is such a unique community.”

The selection process alone — interviews, physical and psychological evaluations, written and oral tests — can take between two and six months, Costello said. Then the officers attend the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission academy, a five-month program based in Burien. Next comes a 10-week training period with the Olympia Police Department.

If all goes smoothly, new officers are ready to hit the streets in 9 1/2 to 13 1/2 months. But more often than not, training takes longer, Costello said. Many of Olympia’s new officers have to wait several weeks, sometimes months, for a slot to open at the academy thanks to a hiring trend statewide.

“As the economy improves, most agencies are hiring and that’s putting a lot of pressure on the academy,” Costello said. “They’re going from eight classes a year to 20.”

During their five months at the academy, new officers complete 720 hours of training learning “basic, global police skills,” Costello said. And once they graduate, they move on to their Olympia Police Department training, where they learn to investigate crimes.

The Olympia Police Department can trim the long training period by hiring “lateral officers” — officers who previously worked for other agencies. These officers can skip the state academy and head straight to the department’s field training, Costello said. And because they’re experienced, field training takes only six to eight weeks.

But only three of the recently hired officers have previous law enforcement experience, Costello said. It’s typically easier to start with a blank slate when training Olympia officers because the community is so unique, he explained. Officers have to contend with a large transient population and an increase in drug use.

“Often, the ideal candidate is someone from the community, someone who is invested,” Costello said. “They want to be here, they want to make Olympia better.”