“Is it okay with you to have law enforcement officers in this community who are violating the law, working as your police officers?”
Tonasket City Attorney Mick Howe
“Through this process I was extremely disappointed to find out they had lied to all of us, not just once but several times.”
Tonasket City Councilwoman Jill Ritter
Tonasket to negotiate temporary coverage by sheriff’s department
TONASKET- Tonasket City Council held a special meeting on Jan. 2, to hear from members of the community before voting to begin negotiations with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s office for police coverage.
“I have been impacted by this, our community has, our children has and I am hoping and encouraging the council and the mayor to do their due diligence,” said community resident, Lisa McCoy.
The room was standing room only, as many from the community asked for clarity regarding the status of the Tonasket Police Department.
The council asked City Attorney Michael Howe to give an update on the current status and future of the police department since both Police Chief Darin Odegaard and Reserve Officer John Cruz had been terminated.
“The chief was fired, Officer Cruz was fired, later that same afternoon the mayor reinstated the chief and a couple of days later the chief reinstated Officer Cruz. The city council met the following evening and discussed the status of the police department. The following day, the mayor fired the chief for the second time, also firing Cruz,” said Howe.
Following an intense meeting with Odegaard and Cruz, Howe said he was very concerned by all that was taking place within the department and began to look into the background of both men.
“It caused me to start looking in depth into the background of those two individuals and it caused me to look into the certifications of those two individuals. It didn’t take very long to find a number of things that were very, very alarming,” said Howe.
The attorney said he then contacted Tisha Jones with The Washington State Criminal Justice Commission, the agency that governs certification and commissions officers in the state of Washington.
After Jones reviewed the records provided to her, Howe said she sent a sternly worded letter to the mayor telling him that immediate action needed to be taken.
Howe said this led to a discussion with the mayor that ultimately led to the termination of not only Cruz, but also Chief Odegaard.
“He knew. He is the person that assigned the shifts and he was the person in charge and that caused the mayor to lose confidence in the chief,” said Howe.
Subsequent to the termination of the two officers, Howe said he has learned, and the training commission now knows, that the limited certification and commission of Officer Cruz was falsified.
“The statement that was sent to The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission indicated that Officer Cruz was put to work and returned to duty in the City of Tonasket on the 26th day of June of 2018. The reason that date is critical is his certification lapsed on the 28th day of June,” said Howe.
According to Howe, Cruz’s first day of work for the City of Tonasket was not until July.
“Were they not approved for hire by the mayor and the council?” asked a woman from the community.
Several others shared concern and feelings of vulnerability while facing the possibility of being without police coverage, some stated they felt good cops had been fired.
“Is it okay with you to have law enforcement officers in this community who are violating the law, working as your police officers?” asked Howe.
“We knew we were getting two officers on the Brady List. We didn’t hire Cruz, the chief hired Cruz. When they do a background check we are not allowed to see that. The chief of police is the only one that can see a background check and he knew Cruz’s background,” said Councilwoman Jill Ritter.
It was brought up that recent hire José Perez was suspected of being on the Brady List as well and there was some discussion and debate about whether this allegation might be true.
“I actually did look it up and he is on the Brady List in Spokane County,” said Ritter.
Lee Thomas, a community member suggested the council vote to contract with Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department in moving forward.
“We’ve established the procedures were lacking in the hiring process, finding fault doesn’t help us at all. You guys can deal with that next election period,” said Thomas.
Al Seccomb, a long time member of the community and former council member voiced his concerns.
“We only have a tax space of so many dollars. So many dollars that have to be spread between the police department, the other city employees. There are only so many dollars. A decision the council is going to have to make is where do those dollars go, especially for law enforcement,” Seccomb said.
“It’s frightening as hell when you have meetings where two or three people show up and then all of a sudden something happens and the room fills up,” said Seccomb.
The question is, how are we going to deal with this until we can get a police department that works, that’s the whole bottom line,” said Mayor Brown.
“I think the council unanimously supports having a police department,” said Ritter.
“Contracting with the sheriff’s office would allow time for us to look at how we can move forward,” said Ritter.
The councilwoman said the council has learned a lot through this process. She said the council put a lot of trust into a chief to do the right thing and in the end, he did not do that.
“It’s unfortunate, I supported Cruz and Odegaard, just like a lot of you people in here, for a long time. I didn’t let hearsay coerce me into thinking any differently that they were both good officers. Through this process I was extremely disappointed to find out they had lied to all of us, not just once but several times,” said Ritter.
To see Laura Knowlton’s full story see this week’s print issue of the Okanogan Valley Gazette-Tribune