Brier’s police staffing challenge clashes with COVID concerns

Some residents said they would be apprehensive about hiring unvaccinated officers who have applied.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Brier in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118

By Daniel Beekman / The Seattle Times

BRIER — Leaders in Brier think they’re on the verge of solving their police staffing problems at last because several experienced cops have applied for the city’s long-vacant positions.

But there’s a catch.

Applicants for the jobs in the small Snohomish County city are looking for work because they were let go by their previous employers under COVID-19 vaccination mandates, Brier residents were told last week, triggering a burst of debate in a community where political views run the gamut and raising questions about the next phase of the pandemic.

As COVID-19 hospitalizations decline and mask mandates lift, policy-makers in Brier and across the state are trying to figure out what normalcy should look like, and neighbors are wondering whether pandemic-era rips in the social fabric can be repaired.

Whether a person is vaccinated has become not only a matter of medical relevance but also “a symbol, part of what represents your belief system, kind of like the red hats when Trump was president,” said Brier resident Kristina Hawley, who helps moderate a community Facebook group where the police hiring issue generated political heat and hundreds of comments last week.

“When you’re calling 911 and the person who responds is someone who puts their own interests and desires over their mission to protect and serve, that’s no longer the kind of person I want help from,” said Hawley, 34, a copy editor with two young children for whom vaccinations aren’t yet available. “I’d rather not interact with someone like that.”

Some residents, including Mayor Dale Kaemingk, are pleased that new police Chief Nick Almquist has quickly recruited a number of qualified candidates. With a population under 7,000 and almost no commercial tax base, the city has struggled over the years to compete against nearby jurisdictions for officers, offering lower wages and less action.

Most of the eight positions in Brier’s police department were vacant at one point last year, leading the city to contract with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. Almquist was hired in January, partly to remedy the situation, which drew complaints when Kaemingk canvassed for votes last year, he said.

“We want to have enough officers,” the mayor said. “I heard that message loud and clear.”

Brier Mayor Dale Kaemingk

Brier Mayor Dale Kaemingk

But other residents have concerns about the city’s recruitment stance. When Almquist, in a City Council meeting on Feb. 22, described three “top-notch candidates” as available because of vaccination mandates, Councilmember Martin Krienke voiced trepidation about their judgment, and Councilmember Valerie Rosman asked about the potential for an outbreak among officers.

“Hold on a second, guys. I get to speak!” Krienke growled when colleagues interrupted his remarks, as tempers in the sleepy meeting suddenly flared.

Some residents have told Rosman they would be “apprehensive about reaching out” to unvaccinated officers, but the council member doubts Brier can afford to establish a mandate for employees, like Seattle, King County and the state, she said in an interview.

“I do think it will be a conversation,” Rosman said. “Whether everyone can come to see it the same way, I don’t know.”

Small suburb

Best known for its horse arena and large residential lots, Brier is an out-of-the-way community with one store and one restaurant. The Facebook page where the vaccination debate raged is mostly devoted to lost dogs and odd jobs. Brier cops spend much of their time waiting to catch speeding motorists.

The city reported three violent crimes and 69 property crimes in 2020, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation database.

What counts as excitement? Once upon a time, “my peacock got loose in the road,” and neighbors called 911 because they thought the bird’s mating call was a screaming girl, recalled Diane Swanberg, 57, a social work supervisor and longtime resident.

Still, there are political tensions. Some older residents with generational roots in Brier see things differently than new arrivals, Rosman said. Joe Biden carried the city in 2020, though Donald Trump cracked 30% in pockets, according to New York Times data.

“I have a Black Lives Matter sign in my yard that I’ve had to replace multiple times, and I’m not the only one,” Hawley said.

Seattle and Shoreline established vaccination mandates for employees last year. But most cities in the region opted against that step, Kaemingk said, surprised that residents are now discussing such a “late-to-the-game topic.”

Police staffing has received more attention over the past year, and not only in Brier, he said, citing conversations with other Snohomish County mayors.

In that context, accepting applications from unvaccinated officers makes sense, said Paula Swisher, Brier’s clerk and treasurer, because “I’m just realistic,” Swisher said. “These are candidates who otherwise would never darken our door.”

Two officers currently “in process” to be hired were previously let go based on vaccination mandates, Almquist told the council, also sharing plans to “wine and dine” a third mandate “victim.”

Brier Police Chief Nick Almquist in 2018, when he was a captain for the Snoqualmie Police Department. (Snoqualmie Valley Record file)

Brier Police Chief Nick Almquist in 2018, when he was a captain for the Snoqualmie Police Department. (Snoqualmie Valley Record file)

The chief didn’t set out to recruit officers in that predicament, he said in a later interview, though some other Washington cities, like Marysville and Spokane, have used such an approach. King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn last month called on County Executive Dow Constantine to repeal his vaccination mandate for sheriff’s deputies and to reinstate deputies willing to return.

A fourth Brier candidate, with no vaccination mandate baggage, has since applied, Almquist said.

Different views

No Brier council members are calling for a mandate, with Councilmember John Lockhart predicting on Feb. 22 there would be “tremendous pushback” against any such attempt.

Councilmember Mike Gallagher, however, warned there could be “a perception issue with the public” about unvaccinated officers. Nearly 80% of residents in the ZIP Code that includes Brier had at least one shot as of November, according to the Snohomish Health District.

The debate whirled on Facebook. “Shame on the city of Brier for potentially exposing their citizens,” one person wrote. “Great news that we are hiring officers that resisted the tyranny of COVID shot mandates,” wrote another.

Some of the social media sparring was disappointing, Kaemingk said. While the mayor is vaccinated, he says Brier should consider applicants regardless of status, noting that case counts are way down.

Almquist is also vaccinated but is “a strong believer in the right to choose,” he said. Brier officers have been directed to wear masks when close to other people, though not when responding to high-priority calls, the chief said.

“I hate to get into the science, but whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated, everybody can get (the virus) and everybody can spread it,” he added.

While breakthrough infections became more common as the omicron variant surged, vaccinated people remain less likely to become infected, experience severe illness and die, according to the state Health Department. Getting vaccinated can lower your risk of getting and spreading the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Brier resident Loretta Willwerth was subject to a mandate as a teacher. She complied gladly to protect herself and her community, from students to at-risk seniors, “so I’m really struggling to understand” the city’s approach, said Willwerth, 48, who thinks experienced officers are a luxury, considering Brier’s scarce crime.

“Why not hire a rookie?” she asked.

Swanberg is also bothered, mostly because she believes police officers “should be setting an example” rather than bucking the rules.

Brier Pizza Kitchen is neutral ground, joked Chris Young, who owns the city’s only eatery. When mask mandates for restaurants lift on March 12, he expects half of his regulars to cheer and the other half to fret.

That sort of divide can put Young, 26, in a tough spot. “Any decision that I make,” he said, “is going to alienate a group of people who come here.”

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