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Starting from Scratch

When a Seattle suburb incorporated, the new government faced an unusual do you form a police department?

March 01, 2003  |  by Shelly Domash

Founding a police department is a challenge that not many people would want to assume. It's hard enough keeping one going, much less starting one from scratch. But that's the task that faced the civic leaders of Federal Way, Wash., when they decided in 1995 to end their contract with the King County Sheriff's Department and field a municipal force.

It was no small job. Incorporated in 1990, located just 15 miles out of Seattle, and covering 24 square miles, Federal Way is the seventh largest city in Washington. Its police would need to be professional, well-equipped, and ready to meet the diverse needs of the new city's more than 87,000 residents.

According to Deputy Chief Brian Wilson, one of the first four officers hired for the department, the first job of the Federal Way PD's organizers was to focus on three major goals: recruiting personnel, establishing policies and procedures, and acquiring equipment and facilities.

Recruiting Personnel

Because Federal Way didn't have the time to put recruits through months of training, a decision was made to hire experienced police officers. And so a nationwide search began.

The department began by offering prospective officers a $5,000 signing bonus or moving expenses. Soon, officers from all over America were making inquiries about the new department.

Of course, hiring police officers is a long and tedious process. Background checks had to be performed on every potential new hire, which resulted in a workload so dense that, as new officers were hired, they were assigned to the detail. Wilson personally interviewed  more than 2,000 prospective officers.

Finally, in October 1996, the Federal Way PD officially began to operate.

"All of a sudden we took over," says Lt. Robert Piel. "The hardest part was getting to know the city, learning the streets, recognizing where there are criminal problems. Our training officers were new officers, too. But we had a number of officers from Washington, so we tried to pair up new officers with a Washington officer who knew the laws."

And with approximately 200 calls a day, the department had no time for transitions.

In an effort to free up more officers to do police work, the department created a police support unit with civilian employees. Still active today, these civilians write summons, transport prisoners, and take crime reports, and many hope to use the job as a way onto the sworn force.

Policies and Procedures

Because it was comprised of 70 officers recruited from departments nationwide, one of the biggest problems the Federal Way PD faced in its early years was how to get everybody on the same page. "Everyone brought their own style," says Piel. "Training proved to be a real challenge for the administration. We had to have everyone do it the Federal Way way, but everyone was doing it from the perspective of their prior employers."

Early on, the department made a decision to manage by instructives and special order as opposed to hastily writing a manual. Policies and procedures such as pursuit and use-of-force were handed down by commanders to their charges through bulletins and verbal commands. But it was decided that rather than taking another department's manual and just stamping "Federal Way" on it that the Federal Way manual would be developed specifically for the local force and only after careful planning and consideration.

Surprisingly in this age of bureaucratic micro management, the Federal Way PD's cautious and thoughtful approach to creating a manual worked. "We had some issues to start, but in the long run, it turned out well because now we have a great policy manual that is very applicable to our agency," says Wilson. "It serves our needs and it reflects what our agency is now."

Piel believes one of the major reasons for the department's success was that it allowed the officers to take part in the department's formation by writing the procedure manual. "Because we were all so active in doing that, we were one of the youngest police departments to be recognized by CALEA," he says. Being recognized by CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies) meant that the department was accredited, and Piel says it was quite an honor for such a young agency.

Equipment and Facilities

Federal grants allowed the Federal Way PD to purchase 40 brand new Ford Crown Victoria police cars complete with full-size laptop computers. Starting out fully equipped helped the agency make a difference from the beginning.

Establishing a headquarters was also a priority. The department moved three times in the first year, dispatch centers were changed, and new radio systems had to be implemented.

But despite such growing pains, morale didn't suffer, and some of the department's veterans say it was because although the Federal Way PD may have been a bit nomadic, it was very well equipped. For example, with the help of federal grants the department purchased 40 new Ford Crown Victoria police cars, all containing full-size laptop computers.

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