Saturday, July 22, 2017 This Week's Paper

Tacoma budget cuts eyed by surrounding cities

As details of Tacoma’s budget cuts to cover a $63 million shortfall face debates within city hall, those discussions are echoing around Pierce County, while the suburban areas worry about the trickle-down they will face as their own budgets tighten. And their solutions might revolutionize how police officers answer calls. Much of the concern focuses on the effects the surrounding cities will face if the proposed cuts to police services come to pass. The Tacoma Police Department is set to cut 29 positions, 13 patrol officers and 16 positions that were funded but are currently vacant. The cuts would save roughly $7 million and translate to “minimum patrol staffing levels” around Tacoma.

Suburban police departments fear that level of service will mean higher crime rates that will bleed into their cities. Tacoma’s police cuts would mean roughly 52,000 fewer patrol hours. “That is a lot of hours of cops on the road to lose,” said Fife Police Chief Brad Blackburn, who runs a 31-officer-and-staff department. “Everyone will get together to get the job done, but it will be tougher with fewer people.” Rosters will be especially tight during festivals or protests, which require more officers than normal staffing, he said. But the rise in crime in Tacoma that is expected with the police cuts will also mean higher crime rates in surrounding communities, since crime knows no boundaries. “It’s already happening,” Blackburn said.

Gang members and other organized criminals commonly commit crimes in Tacoma and flee to Fife because of its quick access to Interstate 5, the Port of Tacoma and Highway 18. A recent case of child prostitution illustrates that point. Eugene Andre Young, 28, and Claude Anthony Hutchinson, 25, have been charged second-degree rape and promoting commercial sexual abuse against a minor after they were arrested after Lakewood police and FBI agents linked them to a advertisement showing a 16-year-old girl being offered for sex. The girl told officers that she met the men after she agreed to cash a check for them, only to find herself in a Fife motel. The men reportedly then forced her to wear lingerie and pose for photographs that were then used for her escort ad. The girl told officers that she had sex with as many as 30 men and made some $2,000, all of which allegedly went to the two defendants.

The police departments around Pierce County operate under mutual support agreements, which means any officer will answer emergency calls regardless of the jurisdiction if a local officer is not available. Those agreements are getting worked more often as departments cut staff to make their budgets balance. And it is the use of those agreements that is feeding the debate of changing the fundamental way police services are handled into more of a metropolitan system, where several cities are served by a pooled roster of officers. The system is common on the East Coast, where handfuls of villages and cities have shared officers. “That makes sense to me. We have been kicking that around,” Milton Police Chief Bill Rhoads said. “But it is hard for the councils and the mayors to give up that local control, not to mention the chief who would be out of work, but if it continues, we will have to start looking at that.” Informal talks are already underway, he said, as several smaller departments look to pool their resources as their budgets shrink.

Milton, which has a department of 12 officers, might have to get smaller next year to make the budget balance. It would be the fourth year in a row the department has cut back. “Our preliminary numbers don’t look good, but I am trying to avoid that,” Rhoads said. “It’s tough. If you don’t have the money, you can’t hire the bodies.” Anyone familiar with metro police models should not hold out hopes, however. “It’s nowhere in sight, and no one is really talking about it,” Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer said, noting however cities already contract for specific services from each other as well as from the sheriff already. “Consolidation of services makes sense. We do a ton of contracting.” Smaller municipal departments, for example, contract with Pierce County when they need a SWAT team or have to conduct a major-crime investigation.