by Cara Gardner
If you get pulled over in the Spokane Valley this summer, the car in your rearview mirror may be an ice blue sedan, sporting the logo of the new City of Spokane Valley. Some of the officers in those vehicles will wear a different uniform with a different badge. If the get-up is new, does that mean the cops are too?
"We are still a part of the Sheriff's Department. We are just creating a sub agency that looks and feels and tastes like its own department, but will be connected to the Sheriff's," says Captain Cal Walker, who is heading up the new Valley police force.
This force is the result of a contract created by officials from the new city and the County Sheriff's Department. The contract outlines police coverage in the Valley and what the city can expect to pay for those services.
Contracting out for public services is common -- and smart, say municipal leaders -- for newly incorporated cities like Spokane Valley. Federal Way, for example, located between Seattle and Tacoma with a population over 80,000, incorporated more than a decade ago and has gone through much of what the new city of Spokane Valley can expect.
"With Spokane Valley being a city of 80,000 plus, that is comparable [to Federal Way]," says Anne Kirkpatrick, Federal Way's police chief. "There are just not many cities in the country that have start-up police departments for a city as large as 80,000."
Federal Way contracted with King County for police coverage for about five years after it incorporated. But citizens and city officials of Federal Way weren't satisfied with the county's services.
"We wanted better police coverage than what we had. So we asked how much that would cost. We found that the overhead was much greater than what we had as a city," says Mary Gates, former mayor and current city council member in Federal Way.
The newly incorporated city soon found itself paying more than it had intended, with less coverage than it wanted. In one year, the cost of the city's contract went up 11 percent without adding any new officers.
"Public safety is a huge chunk of any new city's budget," Gates stresses. "When you have costs go up 11 to 15 percent or so, you're out of business. We could hardly keep up."
Despite efforts to revamp the contract, Kirkpatrick says Federal Way's citizens had made up their minds.
"The community's voice was very supportive of having their own department. They believed they'd have more police presence than what the county was able to give them," Kirkpatrick says.
Mike Erp, director of WSU's Institute for Community-Oriented Policing, says that less than half of all crimes that occur are actually reported to police, so having an independent force often encourages residents to report crimes they otherwise never would.
But Sheriff's Department and Spokane Valley officials say they've implemented policing strategies to address this issue.
"The contract really emphasizes community policing," says Lee Walton, Spokane Valley's interim city manager, adding that residents in the Valley will feel as though they have their own department because the police will be more visible.
Walker says this is already apparent to many residents. "People have come in and asked, 'Have you hired more officers? Have you got more of 'em out here?' " he says. "And I've said, 'No, we just live here now.' "
Valley City Councilman Steve Taylor says the opening of the new Valley precinct in October has already increased coverage of the area and will keep costs down for the county, since officers won't have to drive all the way back and forth between the Public Safety Building on Broadway and the Valley.
MORE COPS = MORE CRIME -- The Sheriff's Department says it has learned from the mistakes other sheriff's departments have made, like those in Federal Way. But something that can't be avoided, says Walker, is an inevitable increase in crime statistics. A stronger police presence almost always leads to an increase in crime reporting. It's because people will call the police more often, Walker says, and the police will catch more criminals.
"They will see more and we will make more arrests. It's not because there's an increase in crimes, it's because we're responding to more," he says.
The concern, Walker admits, is that Valley residents may not recognize the reason for the crime rate increase and will blame the contract. He says it's important to remember that those rates will go back down in about a year.
Methamphetamine crimes may be among the most noticeable. Although an issue throughout Spokane County, these crimes take place more often in the new city of Spokane Valley.
"There were 111 responses last year to meth -- this includes both labs and dumpsites -- and 52 of those were in the boundaries of the Spokane Valley," says Cpl. Dave Reagan, spokesman for the Spokane County Sheriff's Department.
There are no meth specialists included in the contract for the Valley, but Walker says that's because no crime specialists of any kind are in the contract. All major crimes, he says, including sex crimes and homicides, will bring investigators in from the Sheriff's Department. This keeps the departments together, Walker says, so instead of cherry-picking officers from each specialty for the Valley, the resources are shared.
Since they know that 50.3 percent of all crimes in the county occurred in the new city, the Sheriff's Department can make early estimates as to what that's going to cost. County Commissioner Phil Harris says the Valley won't lack coverage.
"There are no geographic borders on the meth task force. They'll be just as aggressive in the Valley as in the city," Harris says.
A Second Opinion -- Hoping to benefit from the experience of others, Valley officials called Bob Jean, the city manager of University Place, as a consultant during contract negotiations. His city has contracted with the Pierce County Sheriff's Department since its incorporation. Jean says that he was impressed with the Spokane County Sheriff's Department's research.
"They were much further ahead in their thinking as a result of their homework. [But] there will still be some issues to clarify," Jean says.
The sheriff had planned what Jean calls a "pool" approach, which would designate a number of county officers to calls coming from the Valley at any given time.
"What I recommended, and what the Valley city council wanted, was individuals assigned to work in the Valley," Jean says. This, says Jean, will allow the officers to get to know the area, its residents and its problems.
"We are assigning 49.5 deputies and six veteran officers. That is about a 20 percent increase in line strength -- there is less senior command, but a more direct line command and also you have veteran cops on the street," Jean says.
It's a big change from what the sheriff had initially wanted, but Jean says it's much better for the city. "The Valley will have, in effect, their own police department," Jean explains.
In addition, 10 of the 20 new police cruisers ordered this year will be painted ice blue and included in the Valley's contract as their very own cars. They should be ready sometime this summer.
Jean initiated another change in the contract as well. He negotiated to reduce the number of upper-management positions and increase the connection between traffic and patrol. What they came up with was a contract that cost $150,000 less than before.
"There will be fewer specialists but more beat cops," Jean says. "This was a completely different approach, and we shocked [the Sheriff's Department], but to their credit they saw what we were getting at."
So what is the grand total of the Valley's police contract?
"About $11.5 million for one year," says Walker. This, he says, is around what they expected. He notes that the price of the contract is an estimate; actual costs can't be determined yet. And until the contract becomes finalized, which will happen sometime next week, he can't be sure that number won't be adjusted.
Walton says taxpayers shouldn't be worried.
"There will be a decrease in taxes. Of course that's not a promise -- it's a goal," he says.
But the contract has been negotiated between the interim city manager and the sheriff's department and may be adopted before the city officially comes into existence on March 31. Should residents be concerned that their elected officials were not involved in this key area?
"We [city council members] have been briefed all along the way," says Taylor. "We're getting pretty much what we wanted out of this: increased patrols and we're staying within the budget."
But Jean still questions the price per officer that the sheriff's department is asking for.
"We think the costs are a little high [per officer]. I compared the salary costs from Spokane County with the salary costs of Pierce, and salaries are 7-10 percent less on the East than the West -- which is what we would expect," says Jean. "But by the time the County got through pricing in the contract, they were pricing salaries at only 2-3 percent less, and even 4-5 percent more than on the West."
Walker is sure the price is fair. If the Valley wants to hire another officer, he says, it can expect to add $97,200 to the contract.
"They are paying our true costs in as far as an officer and his equipment. This means vests, guns, support, training, reports, investigations," he says.
Chief Kirkpatrick in Federal Way says that's how police departments figure costs. "When we hire an officer, we know the cost is not just salary. There are so many factors that go into that cost," she says.
Walker says making comparisons on costs per officer between county sheriff's departments is like comparing apples and oranges. He explains that cost per officer in this contract is inclusive of fleet cars and maintenance, computers, data research, records management, administrative support and more.
But Jean says this cost differentiation isn't something the Valley should let rest.
"I think the County is genuine in how they are working, but it's going to have to be part of a continuing discussion. My suspicion is [the Valley] will want to sit down with the County Sheriff and the City of Spokane and take a real hard look at these regional, support and direct services, and how all the costs are allocated, [to see] if there is any double counting," Jean says.
Walker says that's fine. "It's a vendor relationship now. They need to know from us that they are receiving what they're paying for," he says. "And we need to know that we recover costs that we render to them in a contract basis."
Valley residents may have a better idea of what contracting with the sheriff's department will really cost them after this year is over.
"The whole premise is that the initial contract is based on estimates and the contract will be paid based on actuals," Walton says. This means that the Valley could be paying more -- or less -- than what the contract outlines.
"One of the things involved in this contract is a way to settle and adjust," Walker says. "You can never tell exactly what things are going to cost -- you just can't do it. We may look at end of year results and we may say, 'You know, we owe you a credit.' Or, the other way around. It's give and take."
Whether the Valley continues to contract with the sheriff's department depends greatly on whether the service is good from the beginning.
"Most of the year, we'll be reviewing how it works," Walton says. "It's like a courtship, then an engagement and finally we'll decide if there's a marriage there. We'll decide if we should start up our own department, contract to the private sector or keep the contract with the sheriff."
Keeping Options Open -- Walton says the Valley will have plenty of opportunities to reevaluate the contract. "The contract is for 19 months. We have to decide sometime next fall whether to continue it, otherwise it'll expire in December 2004. If we do continue it, it'll be up for evaluation again in December 2005," he says.
"The important part for any city," says former Federal Way mayor Gates, "is to keep options open, to make sure there's a way to get out of the contract with proper notification. Knowing that it takes approximately two years to start a police department from scratch, they need to make sure they have coverage over time."
Gates says Federal Way could never have started its own department without foresight.
"The first couple of years we were fortunate enough to have positive year-end balances. Instead of spending that money, we saved it in case we needed to build our own department," Gates says. "Taxes did not go up at all when we formed our own police department."
Walton says the Valley will plan ahead: "The council has indicated that if there is any surplus they'd like to stash it away."
But being able to fit the bill for its own department is just one of the many elements a city should consider when looking into an independent police department, says Erp of WSU's Institute for Community-Oriented Policing.
"[Residents] need to consider what resources they have and what they need. What if the responsibility of investigating the Yates serial killer homicides fell on them? What kind of capacities would they need and what could they really handle? The amount of time and resources are significant, and you can't manufacture them out of thin air," Erp cautions.
Indeed, if a start-up police force found itself with a case as difficult and complicated as Spokane's serial killer, would Yates be off the streets by now?
Erp says the most successful outcome is one that allows Valley residents to remain in control of their policing, and to be able to match their expectations with what they're willing to pay. Erp says citizens in the Valley should be asking tough questions: "How much control do you have over the contract and how much would you have if you created your own department, and what does that control cost?"
Publication date: 02/27/03