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What the search for an OPD chief says about the hope for police reform

The Olympia Police Department (OPD) is roiled in a troublesome search for a new Chief of Police. Olympia’s City Council had hired Karras Consulting to help recruit Oly’s next top cop, and on March 25, the City announced the names of four finalists under consideration for the job. Finalists were OPD Acting Interim Police Chief Aaron Jelcick, OPD Community Policing Lieutenant Sgt. Amy King, Port of Portland Police Officer Derrick Turner and former Anchorage, Alaska Deputy Police Chief Sean Case.

Following the announcement, evidence surfaced revealing apparently threatening incidents involving two of the candidates’ pasts. Despite their vetting process, the consulting firm missed these incidents. After the second revelation, the City cancelled its contract with Karras.

In 2016, Amy King, a 21-year veteran with OPD, drew her firearm while supervising a “graveyard” shift meeting in the presence of 15 officers. According to the written complaint, King brandished her gun as part of a “joke” about a mentally ill “problem person,” stating that the subject in question “will make you want to…” She then implied using her gun to put an end to the disturbance. Three months after that, King received another citation for a botched vehicular pursuit in which she “did not comply with Department policy.” At the time of this writing, OPD had not responded to a specific records request for King’s reported infractions within the standard five day period.

Footage showing another one of the finalists abusing their power came to light after the announcement. On July 10, 2017, Derrick Turner, a sergeant and 10-year veteran with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) in Kalamazoo, MI, was caught on body camera performing a violent chokehold maneuver on a young person protesting his brother’s arrest. Turner was later found to have violated the Department’s Use of Force Policy. He received only a written reprimand, as it was officially ruled that his actions were not “malicious or egregious” enough to warrant further discipline.

The painful “subject control method” Turner used unnecessarily, is now widely acknowledged to be extremely dangerous, as well as potentially lethal. Bans against it have become increasingly popular in recent years in jurisdictions across the US. Turner has since withdrawn from the running.

That was not the end of the problems with the finalists. Aaron Jelcick, who took over for outgoing OPD Chief Ronnie Roberts in 2019, effectively spearheaded the violent police response to recent BLM protests in Olympia. In early February, 2021, Jelcick misled The Olympian and the community when, in a press briefing about the excessive police response to a January 31 incident at the Red Lion, he stated that no unhoused people would be charged with trespassing.

But two unhoused people were charged with First Degree Burglary, a Class A Felony that under Washington law includes trespassing as one of three elements required for the charge—and comes with a penalty far worse than trespassing. These two individuals spent over a month in jail and (along with three housing activists) currently face lengthy prison sentences. At that same meeting, Jelcick also failed to mention the brutal, unwarranted assault by his officers on a Black unhoused individual. That encounter, caught on surveillance tape, shows how casually Olympia police deploy racist violence and escalate nonviolent situations.

Public records requests for OPD officers King and Jelcick prior to 2010 have reportedly been filed, but no response is expected until April 30. This is around the time City Manager Jay Burney, who is the City official with the sole power to select a new police chief, was expected to make his decision. Also unavailable are disciplinary records for Sean Case, the fourth finalist. These were requested from the Anchorage Police Department but have yet to be disclosed due to restrictive state laws.

Case was Deputy Chief of the Anchorage Police when an internal investigation found the department owed millions in damages to a former employee in a wrongful termination suit. The suit revealed active discrimination against at least one officer based on their medical diagnosis, as well as other compounding allegations of interagency corruption and guilt by association, according to Alaska Public Media.

While Case was not caught directly in the controversy, his high ranking authority on the force over the last five years is pertinent to an informed understanding of where he’s coming from and what kind of culture he would bring to the department. Similarly, Jelcick’s lead role in Olympia’s policing over the last two years has exposed a deep-seated, militaristic resistance to progressive community engagement.

In April, Burney postponed the search for a chief but “will stay in contact with the finalists regarding their continued interest in the position.” Some positive signs in Olympia include the solicitation of an outside consultant to manage the important task of “Reimagining Public Safety” to be completed before the search for a chief is resumed. This process is a programmatic approach geared toward improving police-community relations through equity, inclusivity, and diversity training, but it has an annual budget, according to documents, of only $50,000.

Such half-measure, bureaucratic incrementalism has, since 2016, adopted the language of social justice reform while simultaneously failing to enact serious changes to policing procedures. There are innumerable accounts, including some of those mentioned above, that directly contradict critical, common-sense ideas proposed by new voices in the City regarding the future of public safety.

OPD’s annual budget is roughly $22 million, but only a fraction of a percentage of that has, and not until very recently, been allocated to community leaders and reconciliatory policies, like Friendly Faces and Crisis Response Unit. These new practices aim to bring changes to the harsh system of policing and criminal justice reform in law and in practice.

That the pool of candidates for the top job in law enforcement produced four “finalists” with serious flaws points to the systemic problem with the institution of policing. It shows us up close the culture of impunity that is shared by police unions and defended by their leadership—and will likely be continued here in Olympia unless there is a radical change in leadership.

Daniel Mootz is a WIP contributor and advocate for equity.

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