Coming soon: A Sunnyside Police Department intimately involved in neighborhoods, with officers who get out of their cars to chat with people out of sheer friendliness.
That’s what incoming chief Albert Escalera promised Friday.
“Organizationwide, we are going to be approachable,” said Escalera, the West Richland captain chosen for the chief’s position that has been vacant for two years.
However, Escalera, 50, also insisted that tough suppression of gang and drug crime will continue.
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“Suppression never ends,” he said. “If you’re going to wage war on something, then wage it.”
Escalera will take the reins of the 30-officer department May 1, more than two years since the previous permanent chief, Ed Radder, retired.
Escalera is a former Washington State Patrol trooper and lives in the Tri-Cities with his wife. They have four children, ages 15 to 28.
His family eventually will move closer to Sunnyside, he said. Sunnyside does not have a residency requirement for the chief of police.
In Sunnyside, a city of 16,000, police are in one breath praised for reducing crime with tactics taken from military playbooks, and in the next criticized for alienating the public they are trying to protect. Residents rarely point to specifics but have vocalized general complaints of unfriendliness.
Escalera said he may attempt to change the image through a program called Neighbors on Watch, which pairs traditional block watch groups with neighborhood beat assignments for officers. He plans to train his officers to visit with residents and business owners on a routine basis, not just in response to crime.
“Not only when they call, but before they call,” he said.Code enforcement officers and public works employees will be encouraged to join them.
None of his ideas mean the department will pull back on enforcement, he said.
Escalera spent three of his 26 years in the State Patrol as the commander of LEAD, a multiagency drug investigation task force that concentrated its work on the Lower Valley in and around Sunnyside. The city needed strict enforcement.
“It is a place that required crackdown ... it needed action,” Escalera said.
About three years ago, Phil Schenck, then deputy chief, announced a militarylike approach to fighting gangs after a wave of violence and subsequent public pleas for change. The City Council approved many of his ideas and money to implement them.
Since then, crime rates have dropped, while residents have grown more vocal in asking for a friendlier approach.
Schenck is now one of two commanders beneath the chief in the restructured department.
Escalera said cities too often make the mistake of pulling back on the enforcement pedal after crime rates drop.
“OK, you’ve suppressed them, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone,” he said.
Prevention and intervention will be paired with suppression, he said, adding he will need time to make the strategy work.
“It won’t happen overnight,” he said.