Three unrelated homicides in Sunnyside during the month of January have prompted city and law enforcement officials to respond about the recent violent crime upswing while reassuring residents they are actively investigating and questioning people of interest to solve the open cases.
The murders of Pedro Leija, 70, on Jan. 5, two days later Angel Faz, 27, and on the last day of the month, Victor Ramos, 28, are the first homicides in over two years in Sunnyside; the longest period free of violence in nearly a decade according to city officials.
“I call on all residents to be vigilant and to aid police in their efforts. Let’s not allow Sunnyside to be defined by the recent violent incidents, but by our determination to work together to protect the peace and safety of all residents,” Sunnyside Mayor Francisco Guerrero stated in a media release on Thursday, Feb. 4.
Community engagement and COVID-19 challenges
In reports provided by Police Chief Al Escalera to the city council over the past year and prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, he presented information about the forewarning of increased violence and gang activity in the Yakima area.
“We knew at the beginning of 2020 that Yakima Police were going to be trying to do a lot of emphasis work around gang violence and gang activity, trying to really enforce and investigate aggressively in that area,” City Manager Martin Casey confirmed.
Personal interaction with law enforcement is a two-way conduit of communication that enables for successful relationships - an important tool utilized by police to better serve and protect the public, which has been made more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In order for us to be successful as a community, we have to take ownership and responsibility for it. We have an obligation, if we see something to say something,” Cmdr. Scott Bailey conveyed in an interview with the Sunnyside Sun. “We have someone that will answer the call and we have someone that will go out there and check it out.”
Health protocols established to safeguard people’s safety have also affected the daily routines for individuals and families throughout the lower valley. Frontline responders are not immune to the virus impacts, such as when 12 Sunnyside officers and staff were directly infected by a jail inmate last year.
Police staffing shortfalls and training schedule
An additional factor confronting command officials over the past few years has been the eligibility of retirement for commissioned staff by age or service, which was at one time as high as 68%, Bailey indicated.
The situation has contributed to a staffing shortfall because the required training time for a patrol officer is about one year, he said, due to an extensive screening and interview process, on-the-job experience, and completion of the Criminal Justice Training Commission’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy (BLEA), which is comprised of 720 hours and takes approximately 16 weeks and must be completed within six months of hire.
“It’s not something where we hire somebody one day and put them to work the next. It takes time to build the familiarity, the comfort, the understanding and the confidence to effectively do this job,” Bailey confirmed.
The department hired three patrol officers in September last year. Two are at the academy and expected to return by the end of April or beginning of May, while the third departed for BLEA training on Feb. 9.
Once they graduate and are back at the department, the new officers are assigned to a field training officer for an additional 12 weeks of instruction prior to embarking out on patrol in the community.
“I think we have an obligation to the community not to simply put a pulse in a uniform. We have to get the right people, who are professional and can do the job…They’ll be the right people for the right job,” Bailey acknowledged.
He added there are still three vacant positions they are recruiting to fill while considering some lateral employee applicants and will be administering an entry level exam comprising of a physical agility test with those passing can take the written test on Saturday, Feb. 13, at Sunnyside High School.
The event seeks to establish a list of candidates for future vacancies who are qualified to proceed with background checks. The top 10 to 15 individuals are invited for an oral board interview.
Law enforcement services and 2021 funding
About one-third of the city’s $13.189 million general fund, nearly $4.5 million, is allocated to law enforcement services. Another $1.2 million is dedicated to jail operations and approximately $577,000 for operating the emergency dispatch program, matched with $467,000 in maintaining municipal court functions, Sunnyside’s law and justice system encompasses close to 50% of the general fund.
“It’s an important investment. It’s a primary investment. We can always see opportunities for enhancement as any department in the city can, and certainly as council can. We try to make the best use of the dollars that we have and to deploy them as efficiently and effectively to enforce the law here and keep people safe,” City Manager Martin Casey expressed during an interview on Thursday afternoon.
As part of their effort to maintain an open line of communication with the public, officials restated their frontline commitment about law enforcement’s ongoing role for continuing to investigate the active homicide cases, while also carrying out normal law enforcement duties in keeping Sunnyside safe.
“We deeply appreciate the community’s support and assistance. If you see something, say something. Anonymous tips are welcome. Please call us at 509-836-6200 any time, day or night,” Police Chief Al Escalara said.