By Ken Bajema
It is a difficult time to be a police officer. As I write this, 116 officers have been killed in the line of duty this year, six of them in Washington state. Many more are injured in physical confrontations. Social media has painted officers in a poor light, which has increased police hatred. Violence — whether captured by cell phone or news crews — never looks good on the six o’clock news, but violence is an unfortunate and necessary part of the job.
Police must make split-second, life-or-death decisions under the physical and mental effects of stress and adrenaline but are judged in hindsight over weeks and months. According to statistics by the National Institute of Justice in 2011, police officers had direct contact with citizens more than 40 million times — 1,146 of those people were shot by police. This means that out of all the people police encountered, approximately 0.00002865 percent were shot. In 2012, police officers made approximately 12 million arrests or approximately 33,000 arrests per day. In almost every case, people who are shot by police posed an immediate deadly threat to an officer or the public.
I left a good paying career in information technology to become a police officer because I wanted to do something meaningful. I’ve worked for the Town of Winthrop for five-and-a-half years. I feel that small town police officers are often taken for granted. While small towns do not have the volume of crime that large cities do, there are far fewer of us to deal with these crimes. There are also other stressors.
For instance, when responding to calls, there is often no backup. There is little money or time for necessary training. Often we are dealing with people who know us by first name, know where we live, and will try to plead and reason to avoid an arrest — but there can be no favoritism when enforcing the law. When we are off duty we run into many more people who we have arrested for DUIs, assaults, drugs, suspended licenses, thefts, etc., simply due to the population density.
While working for the Town of Winthrop, I’ve been in fights, worked on cases of sexual assaults of children, been in high-speed vehicle pursuits and more than once have been close to taking someone’s life. This year I’ve executed five search warrants on homes and collected hundreds of grams of methamphetamines, heroin and stolen property.
The Town of Winthrop has a poor track record of hiring and retaining officers and the results are before us. In the five-and-a-half years I’ve worked for the Town of Winthrop I’ve had to purchase my own $1,200 taser, waited over a year to get reimbursed and then was told I would be given half of what I paid because it was “used.” I’ve had to purchase my own rifle and other needed equipment on a small salary. I’ve worked for two different chiefs, worked with three different officers and I’ve seen two different police clerks come and go.
I’ve been interim chief twice due to this attrition. As chief I’ve had to fight for a dwindling police budget, fight for job benefits for staff and plead for needed equipment including winter tires for police vehicles. I’ve been told by the city council that I can find qualified reserves and then been told that I must stay out of the hiring process. I’ve been micromanaged and prevented from spending money in my own department’s budget.
My parting advice to the Winthrop Town Council is simply to hire qualified officers, pay them well, treat them well, then step aside and let them do their jobs. They know what they are doing and are the most qualified to make policing decisions. The citizens of this valley who are paying taxes for police services deserve to be protected.
Ken Bajema is acting town marshal for Winthrop. He has resigned effective Dec. 22.
(Statistics on line of duty deaths: www.odmp.org. Statistics on police contacts: Law officer Magazine, October 2014 statistics from National Institute of Justice.)