Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: A homegrown police officer caught up in the ‘Clean Up Puyallup’ uproar

Jeff Bennett says all he’s ever wanted to be is a police officer.

When he was a boy, he recalls sending a letter to the FBI office in Seattle, offering to be of assistance any way he could. Someone wrote back, he says with a smile, “thanking me for my enthusiasm.”

Bennett, now in his mid-40s — tall and imposing in his dark blue police uniform — has been a cop for nearly two decades, the majority of that time in Puyallup, where he grew up. He’s seen the city he loves change significantly over the years, blossoming into a sprawling suburb of nearly 40,000.

He’s also seen his profession change. When he was young, he dreamed of car chases and busting criminals, TV-drama style. Since last fall, when he was named the Puyallup police department’s community outreach officer on the Problem Oriented Policing Unit, he’s been engaged in far less glamorous work.

Growth has brought the Puyallup Valley many things — some of them good, like new families and thriving businesses. But some of the changes haven’t been as welcomed.

The red “Clean Up Puyallup” signs that dot yards hint at the emerging tension. A visit to the Clean Up Puyallup Facebook page reveals a firehouse of anger and frustration from residents, much of it aimed at law enforcement and a perceived lack of action in dealing with persistent problems — like thefts, drug use and garbage — associated with the city’s growing homeless population.

Group members have posted videos documenting scenes outside the New Hope Center, Puyallup’s only center for homeless services. Others have written screeds recommending residents take the law into their own hands and start dismantling encampments along the river.

Bennett’s job is to wade into that uproar, an endeavor that makes him part cop, part social worker.

He’s charged with enforcing city laws and addressing concerns from residents, but also with working to connect homeless residents to what few resources are available. When he finds a campsite, it’s his job to remove it — though he has significant discretion on how fast that happens. He often urges Puyallup’s homeless residents to not tell him where they’re camping. “I’ll find out eventually,” he says.

For Bennett, who keeps a list of success stories in a document on his laptop, it’s a delicate balancing act, and one that comes with its own litany of frustrations.

“People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to be terrible and horrible today, and I’m going to perform these horrendous acts,’” Bennett says. “They had to do something, right? Their chemical addiction got them to where they are, or their mental illness, or both. They’re in that spot because they got there.”

Bennett says many people in Puyallup don’t understand the complexities of the problems he deals with on a daily basis — and the personal stories he hears. After nearly a year on the beat, he’s not shy when discussing what he sees as the negative elements of the community conversation in his hometown.

Puyallup is safe, he assures, and the online “fear mongering” doesn’t help. And while Bennett says he sympathizes with residents’ anger, and the desire to swiftly deal with the increase in homelessness and the problems associated with it, he points to a “Trump-ism” that sometimes infiltrates the discourse, a desire to “build a wall around Puyallup” and insulate it from the kinds of problems — like homelessness — typical for a city of its size.

“The community members who are tired of the visible homeless issue without a solution or a plan, rose up, to their credit,” Bennett says. “I’m not necessarily agreeing with how they did it. But they did. And they brought this issue out, and now it’s being dealt with.”

On a recent morning, Bennett led me down a wooded path not far from the banks of the Puyallup River. He was delivering a large Starbucks coffee to a middle-aged woman named Nickie, who lives in a well-kept, out-of-sight tent with an old dog named Lady Bug. She’s been homeless in Puyallup for the better part of the past two years.

Bennett said he first met Nickie a day earlier and was trying to build a relationship with her. Eventually, he hopes to get her out of the woods and into stable housing, but it won’t be easy. She’s unwilling to part with Lady Bug, and shelter space for those with animals is practically nonexistent.

When we find her, Nickie tells us she stays in Puyallup because it’s nice, “you’ll never starve,” and it’s close to the things she needs. A criminal conviction requires her to regularly check in with the Department of Corrections — which she does at the DOC office on Stewart Avenue. Her mental health providers, meanwhile, are also in Puyallup.

“She’s not hurting anybody. She’s not making a mess. She’s well out of sight,” Bennett says after we get back in the car. “To be quite frank, I’ll leave her there as long as I can.”

Why, I ask?

“For all of those reasons. And I have nowhere to put her.”

And will that inaction frustrate those in the community who want to see a tougher response?

“Absolutely,” he tells me.

Later, Bennett and I found ourselves across town, again — not far from the Puyallup River. A large encampment — some 30 people, Bennett estimated — had sprung up on land controlled by the Department of Transportation.

“We’ve got to do something out here,” Bennett says. “We can’t let this keep going. Somebody’s going to get hurt. … Nothing good is going to come out of being out here.”

We found Jessica — who Bennett said “is known as Betty Boop on the street.” He already had a relationship with her, and he got to work trying to talk her into entering a shelter. He offered to pick her up at 8:30 a.m. the next day. In the moment, she agreed.

I emailed Bennett the next day to see how it went.

“Changed her mind,” he replied.