Starting from Scratch

Founding a police department is a challenge that not many people would want to assume. But that's the task that faced the civic leaders of Federal Way, Washington.

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

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.[PAGEBREAK]

The Federal Way

According to Piel, one of the most difficult undertakings in the infancy of the Federal Way PD was trying to develop an identity, something that took a few years to accomplish. He says that identity came recently with the hiring of a new police chief, Anne Kirkpatrick, who "really sewed it up for our department."

Today the department has 116 sworn members and 41 civilians. Fifty-six of the sworn officers have been with the department since the day Federal Way PD cars first hit the streets.

Some of the original officers left for simple reasons, like the inability to deal with the large amount of rainfall in the region or the department not meeting their expectations.  Others went on to better jobs. For example, parlaying the experience they acquired on the job in Federal Way, three lieutenants left to become chiefs in other agencies.

For most departing officers, pay wasn't an issue. In 1998 a top step officer made $49,776, a salary that has increased to $61,896 today. And many of Federal Way's officers come in at even higher steps because of prior law enforcement experience.

Creating a new department is not only difficult internally. Gaining the respect of fellow officers in other agencies can also be a challenge and it is not something that happens overnight.

Through the dedication and persistence of its officers, the Federal Way PD is now one of the nation's leading suburban agencies. "Our bomb squad is nationally recognized now," says Piel. "Our [tactical] officers participate in a multicity SWAT team."

In addition to the bomb disposal unit, the department also has a K-9 unit, bicycle patrols, school resource officers in its five high schools, a traffic enforcement division with six motor officers, a special response team, a special investigations unit, highway emphasis patrol, and criminal intelligence.

Not only is the Federal Way PD recognized among its peers. It's also effective. And it has been from the start.

Crime in the city has dropped since the Federal Way PD was created. "It went down far beyond the nation's drop in crime and the citizens noticed it right way," says Piel. And the statistics back him up. Total index crimes were reduced for each quarter for the first nine quarters of the department's creation.

Today, Federal Way has a new chief, a full complement of dedicated officers, and a deep sense of its mission. "Our current chief's philosophy is we are going to kick crime out of the city. We are not going to abuse people's rights, but if you are a criminal, you better leave because we will put you in jail," says Piel.

Of course, a successful police agency is not made of just its officers' dedication and dilligence. It needs the support of local government and the public.

Wilson says the city's support has been a great help to the department. "Given the challenges of the economic times that are present, Federal Way is one of the few cities in the state of Washington that actually had its bond rating increased. [Local officials] have been very supportive of law enforcement and our police department in meeting our needs to provide service," he explains.

Creating the department brought numerous problems, but it also brought a great deal of personal satisfaction for the first group of officers who helped design the new agency.

"Not many officers can look back at their career and say, 'I started that police department. I wrote some of the policies.' You don't have that with departments that have been around for 100 years or so. I wanted to be a founding member of the police department because I wanted to see where it goes," Piel says.

Wilson agrees. "I am proud of this agency and all the officers. It is probably the best time of my entire career."

And after giving birth to a successful new law enforcement agency, what is the best advice for anyone considering the same path?

According to Piel, it's setting a goal. "Prepare to be CALEA accredited very early on because that organization helped us greatly in establishing our operating standards. And because we had that in mind, our departmental goals were set right from the start. Once you have met that standard you know your policy and procedures are the best they can be."

Wilson agrees and adds, "The most important thing is to maintain your relationship with the people, officers, city staff, and the community. If you maintain those positive relationships, that helps you move forward."

Circling Sharks

From the day the first Federal Way Police Department vehicle hit the streets, local attorneys were lined up to see if they could feed off the fresh meat of the new agency. Fortunately, Federal Way was prepared for the onslaught.

Lt. Robert Piel says local attorneys were out to "see if we would pay out." But they discovered that the new city would fight. "If we are right, we stand strong and will not give anything to anybody, especially the citizen's money that we cherish. If we are wrong we will admit it, and if we are right, we are right and it will be a fight."

For the first 18 months the department had between $18 and 20 million in claims against it. "There was a perception among the Washington State Bar that there were inexperienced people running our department, but that was not the case. We prevailed in all of the cases. We had some real critical ones involving organized crime, government employees, and others that we were successful in challenging," says Deputy Chief Brian Wilson.

In one case involving a State Employee, the department's members counter sued in federal court and damages were awarded to them. "Our reputation is we do quality work, we are very organized and prepared and don't attempt a frivolous lawsuit against the department or the city," Wilson adds.

A Closer Look

Federal Way Police Department
Federal Way, Washington

Chief: Anne Kirkpatrick
Size: 116 sworn officers
Pay: $61,896 for top step officer
Retirement: Fully vested at 20 years
Uniform Allowance: Fully provided
Average Temp. Feb.: 49/37
Average Temp. Aug.: 75/56
Annual Rainfall: 39 inches
Patrol: Single officer units
Cars: Ford Crown Victoria
Service Weapons: Glock (issued),other makes permitted on approval of                                rangemaster

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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