Editor’s Note: Staff writer Steve Dunkelberger is attending the seven-week University Place Public Safety and Criminal Justice Community Academy class and will highlight the issues facing law enforcement officers and communities along the way.
Pierce County has changed a lot since University Place Police Chief Mike Blair was growing up in Tacoma in the 1980s and 1990s. Those were the days when crack cocaine invaded the area, bringing with it gangs and street violence that drew national attention.
“It took 20 years to get through that,” Blair said.
The police crackdown against cocaine and gangs sent drug users seekingthe next new drug that gave rise to the methamphetamine epidemic as the millennium turned. Changes in state law against large purchases of cold medicines followed since those over-the-counter remedies contain the key ingredient in meth. Local meth labs largely disappeared, sending drug addicts yet again on the search for the next high. They found their highs in prescription painkillers, namely oxycontin and other opioids. Tighter controls on pain medication caused the rise of heroin finding its way back into vogue. The drugs of course change, but their effects remain the same: crime and broken lives in the inner city communities and suburbia alike.
“This is a bedroom community,” Blair said, noting that being a bedroom community, however, doesn’t save UP from being a sleepy community when it comes to crime.
The city handled 7,000 police calls in 1996, the year after it incorporated, and handles about 12,000 a year currently despite the population remaining relatively steady at 32,000 residents. That increase in calls for the 15-officer department doesn’t mean that crimes have almost doubled, just that resident are reporting more crimes that would otherwise go uninvestigated and have higher demands for police responses. That demand has led to the motto of “no call too small” while also handling larger crimes that would otherwise seem out of place in a bedroom community.
University Place officers, for example, participated in a multi-agency sting against underage prostitution last year that netted 10 people. The police task force members posed online as parents who were willing to rent out their children. Investigators posted online advertisements offering up these fictitious children, posts that were online for less than 10 minutes before they were flagged as obscene and automatically removed. But that short time didn’t stop more than 1,000 messages responding to the fake ads, some suspects driving from as far away as Vancouver to have sex with children only to find themselves under arrest on felony charges.
UP also has a homeless problem, just like any other city. Homeless encampments spring up along Chambers and Leach Creek as well as in Kobayashi Park. Rather than simply running off illegal homeless campers and tossing all of their worldly possessions into garbage bins, UP officers temporarily store their tents and sleeping bags in the department’s evidence locker while connecting the homeless people with resources and social services.
“We have to solve the problem,” Blair said. “It would be easy to just throw away these ‘invisible’ people, but that isn’t a solution.”
Oct. 10: Protecting your property
Oct. 17: Patrol Procedures & Use of Force
Oct. 24: Nine Flashpoints in American Policing – Sheriff Paul Pastor
Oct. 31: Legalized marijuana and its impact on public safety
Nov. 7: SS911 Communications Officer/K-9 Demo
Nov. 14: Personal gun ownership in America
Anyone can attend individual courses if they are unable to attend the full academy, which meets from 1-4 p.m. on Mondays at the Police Headquarters, 3609 Marketplace West, Suite 201. Other courses include: Basic Defensive Firearms from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Oct. 25, Advanced Defensive Firearms from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Oct. 26 and Emergency Preparedness from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Nov. 1. Contact Jennifer Hales (253) 798-3141 to reserve a spot in the classes or with questions.
The Tacoma Police Department, the Pierce County Sheriff Department and other local police agencies offer similar Community Academy courses in their communities to provide in-depth information about police issues and law enforcement policies tailored to their programs.