What will it take, Winthrop residents may be wondering, to ensure that the town has a full complement of police officers (in this case, two) who might stick around for a while?
Last week’s firing of Marshal Hal Henning by Mayor Anne Acheson (see story, page A1) puts the town back where it was in late 2015, when Acting Marshal Ken Bajema resigned: without any law enforcement officers. Henning’s hiring in mid-2016 filled the most important position, but the deputy marshal position remains open.
It’s been a bumpy couple of years since former Marshal Dave Dahlstrom resigned in late 2013 after four years on the job — which, in retrospect, seems like an impressive tenure. Since then, three marshals (including Bajema) have come and gone, one way or another. A couple of deputies also departed, voluntarily or otherwise, during the past few years.
The reasons for the turnover vary, but an underlying theme emerges from reviewing the town’s recent history with its law enforcement leadership. Each of the past three marshals — Bajema, his predecessor Rikki Schwab and Henning — said that their authority to operate the department had been compromised at some point by the interference of the town’s elected leaders.
To be sure, each of them had some influence on changes in the department — Schwab procured new police vehicles, Bajema persuaded the council that the town could get by with two officers rather than three, Henning moved the marshal’s office to a workable space that’s not in a flooding cavern. So it can’t be said that they were always rebuffed when they suggested improvements they believed would benefit the department and the town. Still, the consistency of their complaints can’t be dismissed, and should be part of any future Town Council discussion about hiring a new marshal.
Henning was a different presence from his predecessors. His usual uniform was jeans, a polo shirt with the department’s insignia, and a gun belt. He was rarely armored-up with the more typical array of gear most officers wear, and adopted a low-key, personal approach to policing in a small town. He was also vocal about what he thought was best for the department, and insistent on being given the latitude a department head should be accorded.
It’s no secret that Henning and Mayor Acheson had disagreements about what that meant. In this case, the mayor is the boss, empowered to make weighty decisions such as whether to discipline or dismiss an employee. You can be sure that she has what she considers valid and defensible reasons for her action.
It’s unfortunate but probably inevitable that some people will choose sides or be quick to judge. I’m expecting to hear some of that at the Town Council meeting tonight (March 1), where residents can speak during a public comments session at the beginning of the meeting. My only caution would be that speakers not assume they know everything there is to know about the situation. Because of the confidential nature of personnel actions, many details are not yet in the public record (although some will be eventually). And please, don’t make it personal. People of good will are involved in every aspect of the issue.
Also, there is a process in place that requires discretion and adherence to state and town statutes. That can’t be short-circuited.
As has happened a couple of times in recent years, the recurring vacancies in Winthrop will likely resurrect discussion of whether the Marshal’s Office and the Twisp Police Department should merge. Those talks have always stalled somewhere along the way because the transitional challenges could be considerable, including budgeting, supervision and allocation of resources. Now that Twisp is back to three full-time officers, a merger may seem attractive to residents in both towns, for stability’s sake if nothing else.
Winthrop and Twisp have both experienced the difficulties of hiring qualified officers who, it might be hoped, would stay in the area for a while. It’s a common problem for police departments large and small, but particularly challenging in rural areas where salaries may not be competitive with larger jurisdictions. Twisp, which has had its own law enforcement issues in the past, was fortunate in its selection of Police Chief Paul Budrow, whose professionalism and commitment to community are exemplary.
Those are the qualities that Winthrop residents likely yearn for. Finding them in the right person will never be easy.