TONASKET — City council members voted to temporarily disband the Tonasket Police Department and contract with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office at a special meeting Wednesday, Jan. 2.
Officer Jose Perez, who began with the Tonasket Police Department in October 2018, was laid off Sunday, Jan. 6, according to Mayor Dennis Brown.
Sheriff Tony Hawley was expecting to meet with the mayor and city representatives to discuss a possible contract Tuesday, Jan. 8 as this article goes to press.
Council members, Mayor Brown, City Attorney Mick Howe and City Clerk-Treasurer Alice Attwood met in executive session for an hour before hearing public comment at Wednesday’s meeting.
Lisa McCoy urged the council to look at the impact not having a police department would have on the community, and suggested council should hold three public meetings before making a decision which “will affect our community and our lives.”
When Lee Thomas asked about the current status, Howe summarized recent events starting with Police Chief Darin Odegaard and Officer John Cruz being terminated and rehired in mid-December, followed by final terminations right before Christmas.
Howe then orated what he called the “Readers Digest version” of why they were fired, including a civil service meeting attended by Odegaard, Cruz, Howe, Attwood and commissioners Jerry Anderson, Paul Christy and former commissioner Aaron Kester. Howe said Cruz “started verbally attacking a commissioner” at the meeting.
Howe said the next morning, he started to “look in depth into their backgrounds and certifications.”
“It didn’t take long to find things very alarming,” said Howe, who then contacted Tisha Jones of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Jones said as a reserve officer, Cruz was not allowed to work full-time, and requested payroll records from the City of Tonasket.
Records received by The Chronicle from Attwood show Cruz worked 1,468 hours between July and November.
Howe said after the mayor received “a sternly-worded letter” from Jones stating immediate action needed to be taken, the mayor terminated Cruz, as well as Odegaard, “because he was the chief and assigned the shifts and was the person in charge.”
Howe said at the time, the city did not have an eligibility list of potential officers to hire.
“In that case, we can have a temporary appointment of an officer limited to one four-month period. Cruz began July 9, so four months had already expired, but he continued to work,” said Howe. “Additionally, Tonasket code says reserve officers in this town cannot be paid. The work is gratuitous and cannot be full time.”
According to payroll records received from Attwood of reserve officers over the last five years, other officers paid while on reserve status include Javier Aguilar, John J. Devlin and Justin R. Wilson.
Howe said this was the first time he had heard of the code being violated.
“We used that as one of the points of termination of both of them,” said Howe. “Subsequent to termination, I have learned, and the training commission knows, the limited certification and commission of Cruz was falsified,” said Howe.
“The reason I am saying that is a statement sent to the training commission indicated Cruz was put to work and returned to duty June 20. The date is critical for Cruz because his certification lapsed on the 28th of June. His return to service was backdated to June 20, and his first day of work was not until July 9.”
According to documents received by The Chronicle from Jones, a Notice of Peace Officer Hire stated Cruz was hired June 18. His return to service deadline, in order to not have to complete the full officer training over again, was June 20. He and Odegaard were both sworn in July 9.
“The bottom line is, when did he begin his work?” said Jones, who said she would be meeting with others in her office Tuesday, Jan. 8, to decide if Cruz could be considered as hired on June 18, when she received the notice of hire signed by Mayor Brown, or if the actual date would be July 9, when he was sworn in.
“We’ve never had a city challenge that law before,” said Jones.
At the July 24 city council meeting, a motion to allow Cruz to receive city benefits was unanimously approved, as well as a motion to pay Cruz $20.40 per hour per the city’s 2018 budget designated for the patrolman #2 position. The police department had no other officers at the time.
“He was working illegally. CJCT does not recognize him as an officer,” said Howe. “The prosecutor is now looking at every case as tainted. Whether it was a traffic stop or a crime, the prosecutor is going to have to dismiss them all, even those already found guilty.”
“And whose fault is that?” asked Tonasket resident Sharon Bagnariol, who identified herself as someone who had gotten to know Odegaard and Cruz and felt protected by them.”
Thomas spoke up and said, “We’ve already established the procedures were lacking. Finding fault doesn’t help. I suggest we contract with the sheriff’s office. And take it out of our hands.”
“I talked to the deputies in the north zone and they are all outstanding officers,” said council member Jill Ritter. “I have confidence in them and the incoming (sheriff) Tony Hawley will meet the contract and response time will be within the required time of 15 minutes.”
“Is this an all or nothing question?” asked Tonasket resident and founder of the Friends of the Police, Alyssa Weddle. “Or can it be a combination of the police department and sheriff’s office?”
“If we terminate the police department, we have to reestablish and start over,” said Mayor Brown. “At this point, our law enforcement is done. They’ve done too many things. I know a lot of people liked Cruz, but they violated laws. You have to have qualified people, or we get sued.”
Debby Haven asked if the police department could be suspended until “the time it takes to get it established.”
Ritter said that while the council unanimously supports having a police department, “the fact is, the station is in disrepair, and they can only stay where they are currently housed (in the visitor’s center) until May.”
When Haven asked who would oversee the police chief if one was hired, she was told the mayor.
“There needs to be a lot of guidelines in place to make sure he is doing it right,” said Haven.
“We are looking at our police policies and a lot of them are outdated. That is one of our goals,” said Ritter, adding later, “I supported Cruz and Odegaard just like a lot of you here. I was extremely disappointed to discover they lied to us.”
“We did what we had to do. It was a hard decision, but it was the best decision,” said council member Marylou Kriner.
When the city was without law enforcement prior to Odegaard being hired, they discussed contracting with the Sheriff’s office, but the city only wanted services for three months rather than a one-year commitment.
“If the contract was just for three months, we would not be able to hire additional deputies. It needs to be a long-term contract,” said Hawley. “Even one year would be too short.”
Hawley said with a new hire attending academy for 720 hours, or approximately five months, followed by an additional term of supervision, “it would be an eight-month investment before they can work on their own.”
Hawley said oral boards are scheduled for the end of the week to fill two positions opened when Rogers retired and Hawley, formerly a sergeant, took over as sheriff.
“I only want one year. That’s what I want,” stated Mayor Brown on Monday, Jan. 7. “We’ll see how things go. I want to build a new building to replace the old one, but we still need to finance that. We are trying to work and see where we can get. I am only willing to go one year. That’s all I basically know.”
“There are different ideas we can talk about if they are going for a contract that short. We’ll have to sit down and look to see what they are looking to get from us and see what we can provide so it works out for both sides’ needs and the safety of the public,” said Hawley. “We’re responding right now to all their calls, with their last officer going out of service over the weekend.”