Craig police investigators leave in wake of budget cuts | CraigDailyPress.com

Craig police investigators leave in wake of budget cuts

Lauren Blair

Detective Jen Kenney presents information on the opioid and heroin drug epidemic to Craig City Council..

Craig Police Department said goodbye to both of its full-time investigators this past week, who each resigned last month in response to concerns over the city's budget cuts.

The shake-up leaves the police force pinched for personnel to handle some of the community's toughest cases, from child sex assaults to domestic violence. And for Investigator Jen Kenney, the decision to leave comes in direct response to how budget cuts were carried out by Craig City Council.

Kenney submitted her resignation July 25 after serving the department for 17 years. She secured a new position with the Louisville Police Department, and completed her last day July 28.

In June, when "the chief let everyone know the decisions council had made… I guess I was hurt and upset and just really disappointed in the direction the city government was going," Kenney said. That decision prompted her to make a change.

Investigator Travis Young, who has served the department for 16 years, is leaving law enforcement and landed a position in southern Colorado, a move prompted this summer by his growing uncertainty about the security of his job. His last day was Thursday, and his grant-funded position was permanently cut after he announced his departure.

"With Jen and Travis both leaving this week, there's 33 years of experience walking out the door. People say you can get that back, but in my view you don't get that back," said Cmdr. Bill Leonard, who oversaw and worked closely with Kenney and Young. "They are both huge losses to the community and to the police department."

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Leonard's own position was cut and replaced with a lower-ranking detective sergeant position, which he has accepted for now while he looks for other opportunities.

If Leonard leaves, that nearly wipes the slate clean for the police department's investigations unit — except for School Resource Officers Norm Rimmer and Ryan Fritz, who support investigations as well — leaving some to wonder how the department will handle an increasing load of sex assault, domestic violence and drug abuse cases.

"I think there would be a lot of people who would be surprised about what's happening in this community," Young said. "We've seen a huge uptick in this community of the presence of meth and heroine. Narcotics arrests have gone up dramatically. And we've had an uptick of sexual assaults (in the last several years), most of which have a child victim."

Of 43 reported incidents of sexual assault in 2016, 24 involved children, Young said.

 Inside the Investigations Division

While patrol officers stay busy responding to calls and spend much of their time on the streets, investigators can spend months bringing justice to victims of some of the heaviest-hitting crimes.

"We deal with sexual assaults, we deal with child exploitation, domestics, murders," Kenney said. "They're the crimes that are very far-reaching. It's not like we just go and take a report and move on."

The division investigated 121 cases in 2016, according to a memo provided by Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta to City Manager Mike Foreman on June 12. Investigators submitted 79 of those cases to the 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office to file charges, 43 of which were sex crimes and 22 of which were serious domestic violence cases, the memo said.

Vanatta explained in response to Foreman and council's directives that removing anyone from the investigations division would negatively impact their effectiveness.

Inside the department, officers are reeling from the impacts of the cuts, and feel that city council realizes neither the gravity of the types of cases investigators deal with nor the valuable experience Craig is losing with their departure.

Young, whose position was grant-funded in cooperation with Advocates Crisis Support Services, focused heavily on child sexual assault and domestic violence cases.

"My youngest victim would've been 2 years old. It's a range. One of my latest investigations involved a 7-year-old and an 8-year-old child. And that suspect was successfully prosecuted and took a plea for 25 years in prison," Young said. "Honestly, I don't think anybody at City Hall really has any idea that we're dealing with crimes of that magnitude in Craig. I've never been asked by anybody at City Hall."

Kenney shared that disappointment, which factored into her loss of "faith in the city government" that drove her to relocate, despite her original intent to spend her entire career in Craig.

"Everybody on city council, since a lot of this has happened, not one of them has ever come back and spoken to me, asked me what I do or asked me how (the budget cuts) impact us," Kenney said. "That really, really bothers me."

But determining who gave the directive to cut a commander position and the investigations position is a bit muddied, as councilmembers made clear that it didn't come from them, but rather that they expressed a preference for the option brought to them by Vanatta, which was then carried out by Foreman and Vanatta.

"We didn't make the decision, the chief of police did," Ponikvar said. "Council's feeling was we'd rather have a commander step down than lose code enforcement. But that's still up to the city manager and the police chief to make that decision… (Per the) city charter, we need to stay out of those decisions."

Councilmember Andrea Camp echoed that, and acknowledged the direction was not ideal but necessary in light of the budget shortfall. She also said she did her homework before supporting it.

"Walt provided us in an email what each person did and what each department did. I sat down, printed it out and looked through it," Camp said. "I didn't feel like there was any need for me to go further and talk to specific departments, but if I felt like I needed to, I certainly wouldn't have hesitated to do that."

Kenney, nonetheless, feels the decision was misguided.

"I understand we need to bring economic development here, but I don't feel we're going to bring companies here when the crime rate is rising and you're cutting your police force, Kenney said. "Since I've been here, the severity of crimes has only increased."

Leonard regrets the pair’s departure, but is proud of their accomplishments. They were such exemplary investigators that Kenney landed her new job from a pool of 100 applicants, he relayed, and Young scored the new position even after it had been closed.

"Craig is losing one hell of a good investigator," Leonard said of Kenney, and about Young, "we're losing a huge hero in my eyes for victims of sex assault and domestic violence."

Foreman said Kenney's position would be filled again, but Leonard is concerned about how long and difficult it may be to find the right person.

"These investigators are dealing with the calls that no one else wants to handle some of the time. The worst of the worst… When you have that type of working environment, you have to have a team and we've had a team," Leonard said. "There's not a whole lot of people wanting to get into law enforcement let alone wanting to come take this position… I can't get that back as part of this team."

The loss also has Advocates Director Chuck Grobe extremely concerned about making sure justice is served to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

"If they don't do their job, the people are back out on the streets immediately and the poor victim is right back in the same situation," Grobe said. "We're really concerned as an organization that it's going to affect bringing closure for these victims because if one little thing is done wrong (in the investigation), the perpetrator can be released and then we're back in the same situation."

Vanatta said the department will have to pick up the slack by pulling other officers in to share some of the investigations load, and could impact the amount of time patrol officers will be able to spend on the streets since they will have to do more of their own follow-up on certain cases.

Despite the department’s internal frustrations, in the end, Leonard fears it's "the victims who are the ones that are going to suffer."

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.