By Kimberly Siegel-Wolf
Sammamish is recognized as one of the safest cities in the United States and the safest in the state of Washington. Responsible for law enforcement in Sammamish for the last three years was Chief Michelle Bennett, who was recently promoted within the Sheriff’s department and thus is leaving Sammamish.
The Sammamish Comment sat down with Chief Bennett for one last interview before she moves on.
Bennett came to Sammamish in October 2016, after having served as the Chief of Police in Maple Valley for 10 years. Bennett accepted a promotion within the King County Sheriff’s Office, in Seattle, and will soon be taking up her new position as Major.
The organization of the police department in Sammamish can be a bit confusing, explains Bennett.
How police is organized in Sammamish
Since police services can be pricey, King County offered contract policing when the city incorporated in 1999. The contract party, the City of Sammamish, pays the county for the city’s police and to this day, all officers in Sammamish, including Sammamish Police, work for the King County Sheriff’s Office. This has been effective, as it has proved to be less costly and allows multiple police services to work together, towards a common goal.
By the mid-2000s, as Sammamish began to grow at an ever-quicker rate, the city reached an agreement to rent the upstairs offices at City Hall to the sheriff’s office. These offices house an extra 30 King County officers, so while the city typically has three officers on patrol duty at any one time, there is still a police presence at City Hall, one that can sometimes be called upon in times of need.
“Sometimes,” as unfortunately, the caveat here is that those extra officers are also covering territory that reaches from Woodinville to Snoqualmie Pass, so they are not always available.
Bennett pointed out the need to keep in mind that if Sammamish has a serious incident in one part of the city, one which requires the response of two officers, and a second incident is being handled nearby and a third call is received, given the traffic levels at certain times of the day, response time could be a problem.
As additional development occurs, if there is a real emergency and a police presence is required, how additional traffic congestion will affect response time.
More officers needed
A Police Services Study was completed in 2018. The purpose of the study was to “evaluate how to best serve residents, business owners, and visitors by providing responsive, well-managed, effective, and efficient law enforcement that is reflective of community concerns, priorities, and resources.”
The results have shown that we are in pretty good shape for a growing community and residents feel “overwhelmingly safe.” However, Bennett pointed out that it is simply not adequate to have only three officers on patrol at a time.
The study shows that Sammamish has fewer police officers than neighboring jurisdictions, with the number of commissioned officers per 1,000 Sammamish residents on a downward trend since incorporation. Since 2000, the rate has been declining at an average of 1.4% per year.
According to the study, “Sammamish has fewer than 0.6 commissioned officers per 1,000 city residents, while peer jurisdictions have between about 0.7 and 1.3 officers per 1,000 residents.”
Bennett explained that Sammamish is currently divided into three patrol districts. Based on her experience, as well as the results of the study, she has requested that the city add a fourth district, which would add an extra officer.
She further believes we need two more police sergeants and another Community Service Officer (CSO). This need will only increase, especially in areas that are packed more densely. Typically, the more people we have living in any one area, the more calls the police receive.
Public trust in police is critical
Bennett believes public trust in police services is a critical ingredient in public safety. While a low crime rate helps, “a department’s communication and engagement efforts are a key factor in shaping its relationship to the community.”
Bennett says they are active on social media, which they use to “advertise community engagement events, such as Coffee with a Cop (a chance for citizens to sit down with the police and enjoy some coffee), as well as pertinent public service announcements (child and animal safety, etc).
One of Bennett’s goals has been that the citizens of Sammamish always feel comfortable contacting and interacting with the police and she genuinely wants citizens to feel comfortable when calling 911. In her words, “Don’t be afraid to call 911 if you see something that doesn’t look right. Err on the side of caution.”
The police study shows that both individuals and businesses feel comfortable communicating with the police in Sammamish. This strongly-held belief that communities should work together has led to the high point of Bennett’s career: the Healthy Community Coalition, a group made up of several area businesses.
Top issues the city is facing
Under her leadership, they have identified the top issues they believe the city is facing. They are working together to come up with both “preventative actions and effective solutions” for the following four concerns:
- Cultural Integration Relations
- Youth Anxiety and Suicide Panel
- Teen Sexual and Domestic Violence
- Teen Drugs and Alcohol
Bennett is also proud of our “National Night Out Against Crime”, which is held on the first Tuesday in August. She believes it is a great way to bring people together and discuss police resources. It has become a fun event but also an educational one.
Sammamish is growing and with that comes the inevitable crime problems, unfortunately trending in an upward direction.
For Bennett, personally, the toughest incidents she had to face during her tenure here were the two double homicides that occurred during the past two years and the recent death of a 16 year old, due to an overdose.
“Keep things in perspective”
Crime in Sammamish over the past three years has risen, especially in areas of mental health and suicide attempts, as well as package thefts and sexual assaults.
Having said that, Bennett stresses to “keep things in perspective. If we keep in mind the fact that there are absolutely horrific things happening around our country and the world, we know it’s not too bad here.”
In a final word of advice, Bennett suggests that we need to be welcoming.
“There is a lot of contention in our city at the moment, with elections looming and emotions running high. If we welcome others, if we stop to talk, if we get to know our neighbors, then relationships will improve” she says.
“You don’t hate someone you know.”