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Sept. 30, 2020

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Weighing options, Woodland causes stir over police department’s future

Talks with Cowlitz County for services fuel speculation in community, but mayor says, 'We're not disbanding the police department'

By , Columbian Staff Writer
Published:
7 Photos
Woodland Police Sgt. Jim Keller makes a traffic stop on Friday. Rumors have spread recently that city officials are looking at disbanding the department to contract out with Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Department, but Woodland officials say they’re just looking at all their options for police service and that there’s no plan on getting rid of the city’s police force.
Woodland Police Sgt. Jim Keller makes a traffic stop on Friday. Rumors have spread recently that city officials are looking at disbanding the department to contract out with Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Department, but Woodland officials say they’re just looking at all their options for police service and that there’s no plan on getting rid of the city’s police force. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WOODLAND — The city of Woodland and Woodland Police Department are months into negotiations for a new contract, and an inquiry made by city officials is causing a stir.

In a July 3 bargaining session, the police officers guild was told that city officials reached out to the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Department to get some rough numbers on contracting with them for services, according to Officer Derek Kelley, president of the Woodland Police Officer Association.

Representatives from the city, Woodland Police Department and Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office have all said the discussions are more exploratory than anything right now — just city officials looking at all their options for police service. Still, residents in Woodland have taken to social media to discuss the idea, with a majority saying they’re against the city getting rid of its police department to contract out with Cowlitz County.

“We’re not disbanding the police department,” Mayor Will Finn said. “That’s not in anyone’s mind right now. We’re trying to be good managers of the money here.”

Finn said the city is looking for some numbers on what it would cost to have Cowlitz come in and provide some services, similar to what the city did when the Woodland Fire Department merged into Clark County Fire & Rescue in 2013.

Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson said the city reached out a few weeks back to inquire about services his department could offer. He said his department is putting together some options for the city, and his department can offer a range from full coverage in the city to providing an officer stationed in one part of Woodland. Nelson said the city didn’t ask for specific options, so he didn’t have any plans or costs available yet.

“It’s a smart thing to do their due diligence and look at options out there,” Nelson said, adding that his department doesn’t provide those services for any other cities in Cowlitz County, although a few have also inquired in recent years.

Nelson said that if the city is interested in exploring the idea more, it would take a few months to iron out all the details of an agreement.

“Nothing is imminent,” he said.

State of the department

Woodland Police Chief Jim Kelly was hired to lead the department about 13 months ago after working with the Washington State Patrol for 28 years. His department has 10 sworn officers, including himself and two sergeants. The department also has two support staffers and one reserve officer.

“We’re shorthanded,” he said. “Even fully staffed, we’re shorthanded.”

In the city’s approved 2018 budget, $1,725,997 is allocated for the police department, a $57,174 increase from 2017. The population estimate for the city was 6,138 in 2017, according to Census data, a 10 percent growth since 2010. The population is expected to continue to grow with plans for more housing already in motion, and the department’s workload shows it.

The department fielded 9,345 calls in 2017, up from 4,358 calls in 2012. The department is on pace to field 10,000 calls this year, Sgt. Jim Keller said, adding that it would be the first time the department reached that number in his 14 years in Woodland. He said most of the calls the department fields are for property crimes, such as vehicle prowls and burglaries.

Kelly said he would like to see the department add three officers and another sergeant. Help could’ve arrived in November, but residents in Woodland voted against a levy lid lift to fund the hiring of two officers and a sergeant and their equipment. The vote narrowly failed, with 50.7 percent of votes coming against the levy lid lift. Finn said it was sad to see it fail, as 652 people voted against it and 634 voted in favor.

“There was not enough engagement,” he said. “A tiny bit of engagement would have made all the difference in the world.”

Finn said it’s important for the city to look at options, especially given the growth in the city and issues providing adequate funding for the department.

Guild response

The Woodland police guild doubts the city is interested in contracting out with Cowlitz, especially since the idea has been floated out in years past without it getting very far.

“Based on the fact that it’s happened before, and based on the fact that there’s no way they can get the same level of service, I’d say it’s a negotiation tactic,” said Pat Emmal of Emmal Skalbania & Vinnedge, who represent the Woodland officers guild. “I don’t think the citizens of Woodland would accept getting rid of their police department.”

The most recent contract expired on Dec. 31, and negotiations have been ongoing, Kelley said. There were some tentative dates scheduled for more bargaining, but those are on hold. The city and guild are using the state Public Employees Relations Commission as a mediator, and Kelley said the commission is a bit busy with all the various teacher unions negotiating with their school districts this summer. He said the commission is waiting to see which, or if any, teacher unions go on strike.

“We’re in limbo right now,” Kelley said.

He added that the department has received great support from the community, as news and rumors of the talks have spread among residents.

One rumor that Finn denies is that city officials are looking to disband the police department so they can turn the police station into City Hall. The station opened in 2013 and was built using city-issued construction bonds and a .01 percentage point voter-approved sales tax increase to pay back the debt.

Past discussion

Former Woodland Police Chief Phil Crochet was with the department from 2014 to 2016, and said he brought up the idea of contracting out to Cowlitz County.

“It’s hard for a city the size of Woodland with the kind of budgetary stresses and strains they have experience for several years to fully commit to police department,” he said. “I don’t believe the city of Woodland can fully commit to its police department.”

Crochet, who resigned from the department in 2016, said the idea wasn’t too popular, so he didn’t look into details and numbers. He said he didn’t look at a hybrid program, and instead looked at Cowlitz County assuming service in the city. Crochet said his thoughts didn’t have anything to do with the department’s officers, but more with the priorities of city officials, who he said are not putting enough money into the police department.

“They’re the ones with a finite budget,” he said of Woodland officials. “A police department is very, very expensive. It would increase efficiency if it was contracted out. There’s a better answer to this problem than asking (residents) for money.”

Crochet said the biggest issue with contracting out is the emotional toll it could take on residents, who would have to adjust to not having their own police department.

“If you can take emotion out of it, you can get a more effective police service if you have the county take over, and I think it would be a cost savings,” Crochet said.

Others feel the city would lose something contracting out, though. While Kelly would like more officers, he said having a small department in a small city allows them to get to know residents and offer unique services. If call volume is low, an officer will respond when residents lock themselves out of their cars. While on patrol Friday, Keller stopped to check on some kids drawing with chalk outside to make sure they were staying out of trouble. In the past, he’s been known to give out coupons for ice cream to kids he sees riding a bike while wearing a helmet.

“In a small town, it allows us to really focus on the community policing aspect of the job,” Keller said. “We’re not always running from call to call to call.”

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