Policing at the 220-acre Big Finn Hill Park is a big topic of concern for many Kirkland residents, particularly those who live near the property.
At its Feb. 18 meeting, Kirkland Police Chief Cherie Harris updated the Kirkland City Council on how the concern is being addressed.
Currently, Big Finn Hill Park is owned, operated and maintained by King County as a regional park. Operation and maintenance are paid for by the countywide King County Parks levy that was passed before Kirkland’s 2011 annexation of the Kingsgate, Finn Hill and Juanita neighborhoods.
Since the annexation, the Kirkland Police Department (KPD) has worked under the condition that the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) is responsible for law enforcement at the park.
“I distinctly remember the chief at the time telling me that the KPD provides mutual aid but the sheriff’s office is responsible for law enforcement services in the park,” Harris, who joined Kirkland’s force in 2012, said.
KPD is contacted if the KSCO needs assistance. The department, according to Harris, has made the effort to send officers to the park in mutual aid-classified issues such as missing children, suicide subjects and or suspicious circumstances, which require at least two (but often more) law enforcement officers.
In May 2019, King County hired two full-time KSCO deputies, which have been funded by the levy, to oversee park properties. They’re required to close park gates, provide patrol coverage and respond to both non-priority and priority calls when they’re in the area and or are not addressing other issues.
This system, though, has been received with qualms by many nearby residents. They have voiced concerns to KPD and the city, particularly about KCSO response times and how they have an impact.
Harris also noted in her presentation that the relationship between KPD and KSCO regarding Big Finn Hill Park has also caused some confusion with dispatch and that there is a need for police-procedure clarity for park users, both jurisdictions and residents.
Ahead of Harris’ update, a few Kirkland residents who live nearby Big Finn Hill Park brought up their concerns during the public comment portion of the meeting. They additionally shared what they would like to see with policing of the area.
Jeanette Leach, who lives in the Finn Hill neighborhood, said the reliance on KCSO for patrol creates issues when a crime or suspicious behavior is in progress. If you witness someone vandalizing a restroom with paint, for instance, KCSO usually does not respond quickly enough, Leach noted.
“I would like to see a much faster response from a discussion with King County Parks and Kirkland so people who are closer — the law enforcement that’s closer — can come faster,” she said.
Leach concluded her testimonial by asking that the city and King County Parks work together to improve response times. Leach also said she wants King County to find a way to have Kirkland have Big Finn Hill Park’s gates locked promptly at 9 p.m. (as signs in the area advertise) so that no one is cruising through the parking lots after hours. This happens often, she said.
Brett Lemoine, who is Leach’s next-door neighbor, advocated for mostly the same things.
“I’ve been awakened many nights by vandalism, by people doing donuts in the park, by late-night parties; I can see fires from my house,” Lemoine said. “All of this is pretty concerning to me — it’s a heavily wooded area. Everything from actual danger to the homes to the trees to just disturbance of the peace. It’s unclear to me why we can’t have some sort of agreement to have better law enforcement. We’d like to have the same rights as those Kirkland residents who don’t live adjacent to county property and would expect the same response times to be timely.”
Data and recommendations
“There’s very little data to support or refute a workload analysis of the department assuming call response at the park,” Harris said, emphasizing that it’s difficult to know currently what the result would be if KPD were responsible for park-related calls.
The chief noted in her presentation that most calls about Big Finn Hill park revolve around park closures.
According to King County data shared in the presentation, since June 2011 there have been 3,398 calls for services, with 3,154 calls relating to park closure. Additional data found that since June 2011, Kirkland police have responded to 303 calls for service that KCSO initially received, the majority of those calls were classified as an “assist” or mutual aid.
King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP) is recommending KPD respond to 911 calls. If a call is deemed a non-emergency, a response is referred to the county’s sheriff office’s parks patrol officers. Parks patrol officers would periodically patrol the area and gates would be closed at levels in line with past practices. The county would provide gate keys to KPD as necessary.
The city recommends that 911 calls be received by the KCSO dispatch center first, with KPD responding to priority, in-progress 911 calls and non-emergency calls handled by KCSO.
Harris said King County has been receptive to Kirkland’s recommendations. As of Feb. 18, though, no final agreement has been actualized. The DNRP is currently recommending there be a pilot program that would necessitate both parties further analyze call response data.
Councilmembers were almost entirely in agreement that protocols need to be updated. Another subject that frequently came up at the meeting was that it would be most beneficial in the long-term if Kirkland was responsible for park operation and maintenance rather than King County.
Councilmember Toby Nixon characterized a new agreement between the KPD and the KSCO as an interim solution.
“I strongly support the city officially opening an inquiry into what it would take for us to make Big Finn Hill Park a city park and take ownership and maintain responsibility for the park,” he said. “It’s embedded in the city; it should be a city park.”
Councilmember Jon Pascal highlighted that he was appreciative that the gaps in service are being discussed. But he was still concerned about, among other things, crimes-in-progress response and how they might be taken advantage of.
Mayor Penny Sweet, who voiced her support of Nixon’s ownership idea, stressed a need for clarified expectations and accountability.
“The ultimate goal here is to continue the work that [KPD is] doing right now but to be very clear, in my mind, as to what our expectations are,” Sweet said. “I think there should be shared expectations by the county and by KPD in terms of assuring that the people in and around and using the park are maximally safe when something happens…Let’s share accountability making sure somebody gets there a little sooner than they can if they’re available.”