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Small town, major crimes - Mercer Island police considering task force

By Ruth Longoria

It doesn't happen often, but when a major crime occurs on the Island, law enforcement here seek help from outside jurisdictions.

That happened not so long ago, in February, when there was a shooting on the Island. Bellevue police detectives logged in a few hundred hours assisting in investigating and writing reports on that case, said Ron Elsoe, Mercer Island Public Safety director.

``In the past, nearby organizations have been more than willing to step up and assist us, but that requires a lot of calling around at the time, and it would be nice to have a preset plan in place,'' Elsoe said. ``When you belong to the coalition, it only takes one phone call and you have 10- to-14 trained detectives reporting to your command post.''

That's why Elsoe and other Island law enforcement have been interested in finding out more about the Coalition of Small Police Agencies' newest brainchild: the Major Crimes Task Force. Elsoe and Mercer Island Police Commander Ed Holmes brought information about the task force to the Aug. 30 Public Safety Committee meeting at City Hall.

``I think we should look hard at becoming involved with this. It seems to be worth pursuing,'' Holmes said.

The Major Crimes Task Force team is made up of 14 officers from cities within the coalition. They are trained to respond to homicides, assaults and other violent crimes. The coalition began in 2001 and originally involved 11 relatively small cities: Black Diamond, Issaquah, Medina, Lake Forest Park, Normandy Park, Algona, Pacific, Enumclaw, Clyde Hill, Duvall and Snoqualmie. Since then, three more agencies have joined the coalition: Hunts Point, Carnation and Yarrow Point. Larger cities, such as Bellevue, Seattle and Kirkland, have their own expertise and don't need of this kind program, Elsoe said.

In addition to developing the skills of officers through county, state and federal agency programs, the coalition has purchased a crime scene van and is able to rent large facilities, such as Pacific Raceways, for training sessions. The coalition also holds meetings for police chiefs to review and share knowledge.

``There are some obvious benefits, such as equipment, training and pooling resources,'' Holmes said.

``Sharing works,'' added Mayor Alan Merkle, who listened intently as Elsoe and Holmes described benefits of the coalition task force.

If Mercer Island were to join the coalition, it wouldn't necessarily cost the department any more money. The coalition already has funds to pay for most other expected expenses. In June, Governor Christine Gregoire presented the coalition with a $100,000 grant check, which the group hopes will be renewed every year, Elsoe said.

Although the coalition sounds like a win-win proposition, at this point, Island law enforcement are in the ``just looking'' phase. In the future, if the department decides to move forward toward joining the coalition, Elsoe would bring the information to the City Council for approval to sign an inter-local agreement. But that is months away, he added.

For now, Elsoe said, the department will continue to look into the program and talk to area police chiefs and officers, as well as discuss pros and cons with city staff. ``There are a lot of pluses involving efficiency and if you have a major crime,'' he said. ``But we're a ways away from deciding anything.''

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