Selecting a new police chief is critical to a community

Editorial Gary MugIt’s surprising how quiet it has been in Oroville and Tonasket the last few years – no major controversies between the police department, the council or the public. In Oroville, much of the credit for that goes to Clay Warnstaff who has been chief of police since being appointed by the mayor in 2008, and in Tonasket to Chief Rob Burks.

In the past Oroville has had temporary chiefs, who didn’t really seem to want to be chiefs and chiefs that seemed to generate controversy and an “us versus them” attitude.

In Tonasket one of the first stories I covered 27 years ago required a trip down to Okanogan to get a comment from a former police chief who had been on trial for misdeeds. Talk about being thrown into the fire – I knew nothing about him and expected him to tell me to take a hike (or worse).

Fortunately for me he was ready and willing to make a few comments and made things a lot easier on a green reporter. Then, again in Tonasket, at one time it seemed like the then chief was more concerned about amassing SWAT gear than good old-fashioned community policing. This chief was well before his time – buying up surplus military gear for his police department.

Nowadays it seems like the big municipal forces can’t get enough surplus military gear. In some cities the line between the police force and a paramilitary seems to be getting blurred, especially in those big municipal police forces. But for Tonasket back then and today it didn’t seem necessary for doing the community policing most of us expect from our rural police departments.

Clay and his predecessor, the late Randy Wheat, seemed to get the job done without all the added drama. Clay is retiring (how did that happen, didn’t we graduate the same class? Oh right, he already retired from the Marines).

Oroville now has the task of finding a new chief, someone who will bring the same steady hand, while keeping his/her sense of humor.

While I think Clay was popular in the community and fair, I’m sure not everyone liked him – especially those who tried to break the law. That’s bound to happen in a certain jobs (ask me about it). One where you enforce the law would be especially hard – but it’s not a popularity contest.

Let’s hope that whomever Oroville’s mayor chooses for its next chief will bring some of the same qualities shown by our retiring chief and that we can continue to have a relatively quiet and safe community to live in.

Even though controversy sells newspapers, just ask some of the former Oroville and Tonasket mayors who used to tell me that all the time. We would truly rather not sit through council meetings where arguing about the police department takes up most of the meeting and accomplishes nothing.