Puyallup police officer Jeff Bennett is a Puyallup native, serving and protecting the community he grew up in.
Bennett’s role as the department’s community outreach officer on the Problem Oriented Policing Unit deals with helping keep the peace amongst the homeless and concerned citizens.
Command staff at PPD was concerned about how much time officers were spending responding to calls pertaining to the same homeless individuals over and over again. Officials realized something had to change.
“We realized we needed to do something in addition to law enforcement,” said Capt. Ryan Portman. “We wanted to find ways to establish a long-term solution.”
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In the fall of 2015, Bennett was assigned as the community outreach officer.
During a ridealong April 8, Bennett talked about his role in venturing into homeless encampments and explaining to the inhabitants the law against camping on public property within city limits. He keeps a weekly count of how many camps he encounters during his patrols. Upon a second visit to a known camp last week, Bennett told the homeless man that he needed to pick up his belongings and move on from the area.
“It’s difficult to remove someone from their home,” Bennett said. “We will do whatever we can to help, but if you break the law, we will have to hold you accountable.”
As part of routine procedure, once Bennett finds a homeless camp, he gives the individuals a 72-hour notice to vacate their location and a flier on homeless resources in the area. The individuals then must either pack up their belongings and move on, or Cascadia Cleaning and Removal LLC, a homeless camp abatement company, will then come in and clean up the space.
It’s like Whac-A-Mole. If we move them from one campsite, they’ll move to another.
Jeff Bennett, Puyallup PD’s community outreach officer
“It’s like Whac-A-Mole,” he said. “If we move them from one campsite, they’ll move to another.”
After giving notice to the camp he visited April 8, the number of known camps inside city limits dropped to zero, Bennett said.
Along River Road, however, just past city limits, there are several homeless camps visible from the road. Many homeless camp along the banks of the Puyallup River and utilize the Fred Meyer grocery store to buy food with their food stamps, receive care at Good Samaritan, and have hearings at the Puyallup court house.
Many of those experiencing homelessness in the city and across Pierce Country are battling addictions to heroin, methamphetamine or alcohol. Some are also battling mental illness either as an independent problem, or alongside drug addiction.
When Bennett is on duty, he handles most of the calls for service relating to the homeless and concerns from the public about the homeless.
“My main battle is the perception from the public ... it’s a hard thing to fight,” he said. “Once people start seeing (the homeless as dangerous), they start believing it.”
Bennett is constantly battling the perception that Puyallup has become a dangerous place.
“The myth that Pioneer Park is this dangerous place just isn’t true,” he said. “When I hear of families scared to go to the park, it makes me want to pick up those families on my day off and bring them down here.”
Knowing and loving the community he grew up in, Bennett doesn’t want people to feel unsafe coming to downtown.
“The downtown is awesome,” he said. “When I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, I’d ride my bike downtown, and I still do that today. I ride my bike down and continually support the downtown business owners.”
While Bennett says Puyallup is safe, he still encourages those who experience crime to call 911.
Bennett says that after 18 years in law enforcement, his current role is making a difference in his community.
“It’s extremely satisfying,” he said. “I’ve made much more of a difference in this role.”
Homelessness in Puyallup series
Part 2: Puyallup Police Department’s community outreach officer, who works primarily with homeless individuals, talks about the issue from his perspective.
Part 3: Puyallup City Manager and City Council members speak about what the city is planning on doing about the issue.