The public safety committee, which would be made of three council members, was suggested by council members to improve police oversight and communication between the department and community.
“We’ve made so many important strides,” said Kim Hendrickson, founder of the grassroots group known as Islanders for Collaborative Policing. “It’s a different department now, and there’s a real commitment at the top level of the police department to interact positively with the community.”
The committee’s specific role and responsibilities will be discussed at a following council meeting, said City Manager Doug Schulze.
When and how often the public would be given notice of the committee meetings also will be reviewed.
Islanders for Collaborative Policing started in 2011, when police and resident communication was “terrible,” Hendrickson said.
“Sadly, up until the shooting death of Doug Ostling, people just didn’t talk openly about the police department,” she said. “It wasn’t the culture on this island to have an open conversation about it.”
In 2010, Ostling was shot by Bainbridge Island police after calling 911. A judge later ruled the city didn’t provide officers proper training to interact with residents that have documented mental health issues, like Ostling, and Ostling’s family was awarded a $1 million settlement nearly two years after the shooting.
The police department faced other scrutiny under former Police Chief Jon Fehlman.
In 2011, the department hired a volunteer reserve officer — giving him a badge and the authority to carry a gun — who had a criminal history, including a misdemeanor assault charge and a weapons charge.
Fehlman was the Bainbridge Island police chief during each of these issues. He resigned in September 2012.
The current police chief — Matt Hamner — has been working to rebuild community relations since he was hired in 2013, he said, including designating a community resource officer earlier this year.
Hamner said he welcomes questions from the community and is working to provide a transparent department.
“I think it’s important that the community, with their elected representatives, are able to see the progress and good work the police department is doing,” Hamner said. “And this is a great venue to accomplish that.”
Under Hamner’s direction, the department has a new mission, new training and new ways to document complaints, among other changes.
Transparency is part of the department’s transformation, Hamner added.
While he and Hendrickson both said improvements have been made in the police department, they also agreed there is more work to be done.
Seeing an oversight committee is one more aspect Hendrickson wants to see.
“We’ve been waiting for this for years,” she said. “This is a huge step in the right direction, if it happens.”