WOODLAND — Growing up with a New York Police detective for a dad, you might say Jim Kelly was destined to go into law enforcement.
While his father certainly was an inspiration, Kelly said he’s always been a public servant, and the former state patrolman and private security manager applied to become Woodland Police Chief after mayor Will Finn and others in law enforcement encouraged him to do so.
Kelly, 56 was born and raised in New York City, but he was stationed at Camp Pendleton and later the Marine Corps barracks in Bremerton after joining the Marine corps in his early twenties. Kelly worked at the Washington State Patrol from 1987 to 2016 and recently was security manager for KapStone Paper and Packaging. While the specifics of enforcement differ, Kelly said it’s the same work in his heart.
“Whether you’re serving the citizens of the state, or the county, or the city, I think it’s just serving. I don’t think it has any bearing on the size.”
In 2017 Kelly took on the department pummeled by years of lawsuits and conflict. And there are still some tensions there.
The city of Woodland in October settled a civil suit raised two years ago against former Woodland police officer Brad Gillaspie for $275,000. In that suit — one of two settled over alleged inappropriate on-the-job behavior from Gillaspie — a judge wrote that Gillaspie stalked the woman’s home, threatened her, and egregiously interfered with her family custody proceedings.
“When he came in, we had all kinds of challenges,” Woodland City Council Member Benjamin Fredricks said. “Just a tremendous amount of turmoil going on within that department. It was just a very difficult environment.”
When he joined the City Council in 2008, Fredricks said the city had “a lot of work to do” on rehabilitating the perception of a “good ol’ boys” network at the department. Under the leadership of Kelly, City Administrator Peter Boyce and Mayor Will Finn, the department has moved forward, Fredricks said.
“When I say ‘right the ship,’ that’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Fredricks said. “I’d say Chief Kelly has done a fantastic job leading the department through transition. In my mind it’s just a completely different environment, a different vibe, it’s just more positive, and I think that Jim’s leadership certainly helped. … The level of professionalism has improved immensely.”
As far as changes made since Gillaspie left the department, Kelly said he’s worked to improve accountability and supervisor leadership. Informally, he’s asked his first-line supervisors to have more conversations with officers, both to commend and correct their actions as needed. He said he’s also added to annual employee performance evaluations.
And as far as specific officer conduct changes: “I don’t know if there’s any (new) specific policy that is in place,” Kelly said. “The previous chiefs in my position built the foundation of this department, and it’s my job to keep the strength in that foundation as well as build the structure bigger, or stronger. … I think the officers know what my expectations are, and I think that’s displayed on a daily basis.”
The department is, however, still grappling with union-city negotiations. The police officer’s guild is scheduled to enter binding arbitration with the city over contract negotiations that have been ongoing since the officers’ contract expired on Jan. 1, 2017. Woodland police are still operating under that contract and haven’t received a raise since. Tensions flared at one point when the city announced it was considering contracting with the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s office for law enforcement. That was only an information gathering exercise, Boyce said in September, but Woodland Police Guild president Derek Kelley responded that he and other officers considered talk of contracting out police services “literally as a threat to our livelihoods.”
The department has, on average, lost an officer and hired another every year over the last decade. Woodland PD now has 10 sworn officers, including Kelly. That’s as many as it is budgeted for, but he said the city needs more.
“Just like every other agency in the state of Washington, we’re always gonna be battling the manpower issues,” Kelly said. “There’s never gonna be enough staff.”
He’d like to have at least six more officers, Kelly said. His first priority has to be emergency calls for service, he said, but he’d like to be able to staff more officers in schools or at community events.
He pointed to police data that shows a rapid rise in call rates beginning in 2013. The department hasn’t grown since 2009, he said — and in that time, the number of police calls has more than doubled from 3,859 to 9,294 last year.
“I don’t know if there’s one thing I can attribute that to,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s jumping out at me right now that says, ‘this is the reason why our volume is that high.’ “
Kelly, who also officiates football and basketball games in Oregon and Southwest Washington, said he’s proud of his officers and that their conduct speaks for themselves. But he added that police nationwide are having to reconsider their public perception.
“The reputation of law enforcement in general is not good,” Kelly said. “I think uniformed officers, and even plain clothes officers need to make those extra efforts to … build upon a good relationship with community members.”