Following recent tragic events between police officers and citizens in several U.S. cities, the Mountlake Terrace Police Department made a special presentation during Monday night’s City Council meeting to discuss policing strategies and challenges in the 21st century, highlighting some steps the department has taken to maintain public trust.
“These incidents can destroy public trust, it can be destroyed in an instant, and once it’s lost it is very difficult to get it back,” Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Greg Wilson said during the opening of his presentation.
Wilson looked back at the 2014 incidents in Ferguson, Missouri. With a population of about 21,000 people, Ferguson is of a similar size to Mountlake Terrace, but has a very different culture than what is seen in Mountlake Terrace.
A report released by the Department of Justice in March 2015 recommended changes to the policies used by the Ferguson Police Department, including increasing public involvement, increasing officer supervision and change use of force policies to encourage de-escalation tactics, Wilson said.
“Nothing in the D.O.J. report on Ferguson is new,” Wilson said. “It’s the same stuff I was taught at the academy 30 years ago. We just became complacent on the oversight.”
A national task force was created in December 2014 to identify areas for local law enforcement agencies to promote crime reduction while building public trust. That task force then created what Wilson describes as a “road map” for future policing policies. For example, local law enforcement agencies can review and update policies to put emphasis on de-escalation tactics and alternatives to arrest, and ensure officers have access to the training they need to keep themselves safe.
One of the biggest changes seen recently at the Mountlake Terrace Police Department was a shift from what Assistant Police Chief Pete Caw describes as a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality.
Caw began working for the Mountlake Terrace Police Department in the mid-80s. In that time, he said the biggest focus for the police department was gang-related crimes.
“They asked us to be warriors. Warriors are very different from guardians,” Caw said. “Guardians have the interest in protecting rights. That was not the interest in the 80s, we were combating the gangs.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Caw said officers were called upon to take care of drug-related issues.
“Guardians don’t fight the war on drugs. Warriors do,” Caw said.
After that, however, it became clear that a guardian mentality would help those most in need–those addicted to drugs and those without homes.
“The warrior mentality won’t combat those issues (heroin addiction and homelessness),” Caw said. “The guardian mentality will.”
Wilson called upon smaller law enforcement agencies to lead the way in changing police mentality. Of the 12,501 agencies in the country, 11,048 have less than 50 officers–meaning small agencies make up 88 percent of the country’s law enforcement agencies. Only 5 percent employ 100 or more officers nationwide.
“We should be the model. We should not be living in the shadows of larger agencies around us. We need to be up-front and involved in changing this culture and focusing on how to do this job while maintaining public trust,” Wilson said.
The Mountlake Terrace Police Department is a state accredited agency, which means leaders from outside departments come in annually to audit the department’s standards and policies.
Wilson said in his eight years as Mountlake Terrace Police Chief, he has not seen an excessive use of force situation.
“We have had deadly force situations, we have had other use of force situations that were evaluated by an outside department, and they were all found to be within policy,” he said.
He added that he estimates more than 95 percent of misconduct complaints come from other officers.
“That’s the kind of self-discipline you want to see in your agency,” he said.
Wilson closed his presentation with a thought he shared during Coffee with the City last week.
“There are people who don’t like the police, and that is your right,” he said. “But you do not have a right to not obey a lawful order. You do not have a right to assault police. You certainly don’t have a right to kill police.”
Several members of the City Council responded with thanks and support for the presentation and for the department as a whole.
“We support you,” Councilmember Bryan Wahl said. “And I think it’s easy to say we support you because of the culture you have built here in Mountlake Terrace. I want to say thank you not only for your service, but also for the leadership you provide.”
To view the full presentation, click here.
–By Natalie Covate