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After 17 years, Tacoma police chief with ‘good heart and tough job’ retires

Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell speaks Tuesday, May 9, 2017, about TPD officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez who was killed in the line of duty while responding to a domestic call. Ramsdell was invited to speak at the Spokane Law Enforcement Memorial service at the Spokane Law Enforcement Memorial, which bears the name of all LEOs killed in the line of duty. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW  (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Stacia Glenn Tacoma News Tribune

Don Ramsdell was a steadying figure in the Tacoma Police Department.

When the 60-year-old retires Thursday after 17 years at the helm of the department, it’ll be as the longest-serving police chief in in Tacoma’s history, twice as long as former chief Ray Fjetland, who served from 1987 to 1995.

Unlike his long-serving counterpart, Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, who retired earlier this year, Ramsdell is a man of few words. Where Pastor talks in extended paragraphs, Ramsdell might settle for a sentence or two.

He joined the Police Department in 1985 as a patrol officer and worked his way up the ranks. He spent time on the SWAT team, dismantled methamphetamine labs, worked gang cases and oversaw Internal Affairs. In those early years, fellow officers tagged him with a high-octane nickname: “Rammer.” It stayed with him for the rest of his career, used with affection by those who knew him best.

By 2001, he’d been promoted to lieutenant. His reputation was squeaky-clean, and his department test scores gleamed. New Tacoma Police Chief David Brame swiftly promoted Ramsdell to captain, then assistant chief. The moves didn’t reflect any particular closeness between the two men; rather, adding Ramsdell to the inner circle of command offset internal perceptions that Brame was handing promotions to his best friends.

Ramsdell knew little of the turmoil in Brame’s private life. He’d only been assistant chief for nine months before Brame fatally shot his wife, then himself, in a Gig Harbor parking lot in 2003.

The department, along with the city government, was in disarray after the shootings, facing investigations by state and federal agencies. Tacoma officials asked Ramsdell to become interim chief and he agreed, asking only one question: how quickly could they find a replacement?

“I’ll be honest, I wasn’t ready for the job,” he said.

Ramsdell was concerned about his lack of executive leadership experience. After all, he’d gone from sergeant to interim chief in seven years.

He turned out to be a steadying force: soft-spoken, even shy in public settings. One retired commander often suggested Ramsdell would have been an ideal priest – but he had ideas, lots of ideas, so the position became permanent.

His first moves as chief were to train officers in community policing, overturn a long-standing ban on off-duty officers working security for businesses and implement a policy requiring employees to report any domestic violence incidents of which they became aware.

Ramsdell wanted to rebuild trust, both within the department and with the community.

“It was a tough time in a lot of ways,” Ramsdell said. “There was uncertainty of the future, how to get there. We needed to make a change in our organization. We needed direction, we needed a vision for the future and we needed to know how we get there.”

Department firsts

Ramsdell brought a lot of change to the department over nearly two decades, adding a gang unit, cold case unit and Child Abduction Response Team.

The gang unit formed in 2006 to attack the city’s persistent problem. Even when it encountered staffing and money problems, the chief recognized the important of such a team and found ways for it to continue.

Within the first year, the gang unit arrested more than 995 people, confiscated 65 guns and was honored with a regional award for its efforts.

The cold case unit came in 2011 with a single detective assigned to look into several of the 173 unsolved homicides dating back 50 years.

More than a dozen cases were solved and the department won grants that helped pay for DNA work.

Last year, arrests were made in two of the city’s most notorious homicides – the 1986 deaths of Jenny Bastian, 13, and Michella Welch, 12, in city parks in separate incidents.

That’s something Ramsdell said was one of the biggest accomplishments of his tenure.

“We’ve solved a lot of cold cases over the years and one of the highlights of my career was when we were able to solve the Bastian and Welch cases,” he said. “Being able to tell their families that we captured these guys from these horrific crimes, it was meaningful.”

Another accomplishment he’s proud of was developing the department’s first strategic business plan.

It rolled out in 2007 with six priorities and 36 goals. It focused on drawing police and neighborhoods together for community-oriented policing, using data to manage crime and increasing teamwork.

Looking back, Ramsdell said it may have been too broad in scope but he dreamed big and worked hard.

“That just showed us all the things we needed to do to move forward, the things we needed to address to make ourselves better,” he said.

The chief updated policies and procedures that were out-of-date, including some on use of force and vehicle pursuits, and started the process of getting the Police Department accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, an honor granted to roughly 1,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide.

It was a long, hard process – the department had to meet 471 standards.

But in November 2010, Tacoma became one of only eight agencies in Washington state to acquire the accreditation.

“That was the impetus to move us forward to the change that we needed to become a well-led, well-managed organization,” Ramsdell said, adding that the department’s forensic team and Child Abduction Response Team also have national accreditation.

The department was re-accredited in 2013, 2016 and 2020. This year’s re-accreditation process is one of the reasons he pushed back his retirement.

Hard times

There were a few bumps in the road of Ramsdell’s career.

Two officers died in the line of duty while the chief was in charge. James Lewis was killed in a motorcycle crash in April 2004, and Jake Gutierrez was shot to death in November 2016.

“Those weigh heavy on my heart,” Ramsdell said.

Then came the case of Zina Linnik, a 12-year-old girl abducted and killed by a convicted sex offender in July 2007.

A department spokesman, then the only person who could send out an Amber Alert, had just worked a long shift, took a sleeping aid and fell back asleep before putting out the Amber Alert as requested.

Ramsdell initially told the media the six-hour delay in issuing the alert occurred because detectives needed more time to firm up details used in the alert.

The truth came out in 2011 when Zina’s family filed a lawsuit against the city and the department spokesman gave the real reason for the delay in his deposition.

Then-city manager Eric Anderson reprimanded Ramsdell for not telling him in a timely manner that the spokesman had been on-call when he was requested to issue the Amber Alert.

City officials said the reprimand would remain in the chief’s file for two years, and emphasized that they still believed he and police were doing outstanding work.

Another tough time arose in 2014 when the public learned the Police Department had for years been quietly using Stingrays, controversial surveillance equipment that can sweep up records of every cellphone call and message from up to a half mile away.

Residents were outraged at the idea of police possibly collecting personal information and storing it.

Tacoma police said they did not collect data with the device, but declined to speak about the devise in details because of a nondisclosure agreement TPD has with the FBI.

When asked if he would have done anything differently as chief, Ramsdell said he couldn’t think of anything off the top of his head.

“I take it one day at a time and move forward with what I think is in the best interest of our people and our community,” he said.

Community involvement

One of Ramsdell’s favorite parts of being chief was getting out of his office and mingling with residents.

He read books monthly at elementary schools, loved Shop with a Cop and reveled in summer picnics and Halloween trick-or-treating at department headquarters.

Lua Pritchard, executive director of Asia Pacific Cultural Center, said it was the chief’s eagerness to get involved that earned him respect.

“Ever since he’s become the chief, he’s always been in the community,” she said. “He did not hesitate to come out and be with us and that’s what we want in a leader. We want a leader that wants to be part of us.”

Over the years, it was common for Ramsdell to come to marches and protests to chat with participants and ensure everyone was safe.

After Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, was fatally shot by a white neighbor as he walked home from a Florida convenience store in 2012, the chief participated in community conversations about racial injustice.

“At a time when it wasn’t popular, the chief wasn’t afraid to be a part of those conversations,” said Mayor Victoria Woodards.

Ramsdell was invited in 2014 to help lead a march after Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Organizers hoped bringing police and the community together would build a better relationship.

Gregory Christopher, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, remembers that day. It’s one of his favorite “Hallmark moment” memories with Ramsdell.

The hundreds who marched in Tacoma ended at People’s Park. When Christopher arrived, he spotted Ramsdell stick fighting with two young Black boys. It reminded him of a scene he’d seen in a movie where Nelson Mandela played soccer with children.

“I thought about how Mandela was pushing for humanity to stand together. I saw that in Chief Ramsdell playing with those two African-American children in the park. And he was having fun,” Christopher with a laugh. “That said to me that this man has a good heart and a tough job.”

It’s the same march that left an impression on Woodards after she saw Ramsdell walking side-by-side with then-Mayor Marilyn Strickland in front of the crowd.

“He wasn’t afraid to be out front,” she said. “My chief was a consummate professional, a person who really cared about community and understood his role was to be supportive of community.”

Getting out to Black Lives Matter protests in the midst of a pandemic was more problematic for the chief, but he said he supports everybody’s First Amendment right to assert themselves.

“It’s important to be able to support people and listen to people when they want to see change,” Ramsdell said. “We need to be a part of that change.”

Life after chiefdom

Ramsdell is ready to retire, but he hasn’t decided what’s next.

He wants to improve his golf game, play handyman around the house, maybe hunt for an Arizona home so he and his wife can become snowbirds. He hopes to find a volunteer or part-time gig at some point, though he hasn’t thought much about what that would entail.

The promise of a slower pace of life is alluring, but Ramsdell says he’ll most miss the people he works with in the department, city and community.

“We’re a family here at the department and like all families, we have our moments but they’re incredible, wonderful people,” Ramsdell said.