PASCO — Pasco Police Chief Denis Austin can remember when Pasco was covered in graffiti, invaded by gang members and marred by a high crime rate.
That was 1995, when Austin was hired to take over the reins of Pasco's police department. Almost 16 years later, Austin is getting ready to retire and let someone else take the lead in maintaining the quality of life and low crime rate he says police have helped create in Pasco.
His last day is Aug. 31.
Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins credits Austin, 62, with contributing to Pasco's success during the past two decades. The crime rate has dropped and the quality of life has improved, he said. At the same time, Pasco's population has more than doubled.
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Watkins said he also has appreciated Austin's passion for reducing domestic violence and gang activity.
Austin said the department's focus on community policing and the implementation of a long list of various programs has helped make Pasco unrecognizable from what it was in 1995.
Community policing means focusing more on providing services, not just on responding to crime, Austin said.
"We are looking for ways we can improve the quality of life," he said.
When Austin was hired, he said the city's crime rate was at 96 victims per 1,000 residents. Now, that rate is 29 victims per 1,000.
Austin successfully changed the philosophy of the police department to community-orientated policing, said Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield. Instead of being an occupying army, police officers work with citizens.
Austin reorganized the police department when he took over, giving officers set shifts and patrol areas, and opening up area resource offices in various neighborhoods and assigning officers to Pasco schools.
Austin also helped defuse the tension between police and the Hispanic community, Crutchfield said. The city had complaints from Hispanic residents who often felt police were discriminating against them.
Austin started a citizens advisory committee 15 years ago, which Austin said still helps identify problems and acts as a sounding board for ideas. The department also added bilingual officers and employees.
Austin said the citizens academy, still held about two times a year, helped educate the public on what police do and improved community relations.
He also helped start the Explorers program for children interested in becoming police officers; the city's graffiti abatement program that uses inmate labor to clean up graffiti; the Gang Resistance Education and Training program in schools; and the Crime-free Multi-Housing Program to help landlords and tenants make rental housing safer.
Police officers now contact victims of a crime to let them know if there is progress and give victims a card with their contact information and a case number, Austin said.
That victim services program was something the community asked for in a survey. And he credits the officers and employees for making the programs work.
Crutchfield credits Austin with Pasco's improved working relationships with other area law enforcement agencies.
Austin also has a list of issues he hopes to see resolved before handing in his badge.
That includes hoping the city will hire more police officers. They have four vacancies and two eliminated positions he would like to see added back. Pasco has 66 police officers and 11 civilian employees.
Ideally, Pasco would have an additional 12 officers, which would bring it to a ratio of 1.4 officers per 1,000 residents. The state average is 1.65 officers per 1,000.
But with a tight budget, Austin said that's likely more than he can hope for.
Also, Austin would like to see Benton and Franklin counties merge their emergency communications systems.
Currently, Pasco police have one radio channel to talk on and communication with law enforcement officers across the river can be difficult.
After he retires, Austin plans to volunteer with organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs and the United Way.
And there's his yellow 1932 Ford he plans to continue to show and, once he finds one, a 1948 Chevy truck he dreams of rebuilding. Austin said he also would like to get back into woodworking and spending more time playing one of his half-dozen guitars.
Austin and his wife, Patricia, plan to stay in the Tri-Cities near their three children and two grandchildren.