New Washougal police chief has ‘jumped right in’

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Wendi Steinbronn is settling in well to her new role as chief of the Washougal Police Department. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Wendi Steinbronn is settling in well to her new position as the chief of the Washougal Police Department.

“Wendi is doing great,” Washougal City Manager David Scott said. “She’s fitting in greatly, as I fully expected. She’s jumped right in, taken command of the police department and is integrating into the team here.”

Washougal city leaders selected Steinbronn from a pool of four police chief finalists in November 2019. The former Portland police commander took over for retired Washougal Police Chief Ron Mitchell in early December 2019.

“The community’s been super welcoming,” Steinbronn said. “I’ve tried really hard to get around to as many events as I can. The one thing that I noticed right away is that when I visit different businesses to have lunch or have a cup of coffee, maybe half a dozen or more people will come by and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ and ‘We’re glad you’re here’ … whereas in Portland, I may get that once in a while. I feel very much like a part of the community.”

During her time as chief, Steinbronn has become familiar with the abilities and personalities of her new team members; earned certification from the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission; and spearheaded the department’s continuing efforts to obtain accreditation from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

“It’s been pretty much what I expected,” Steinbronn said. “On a day-to-day basis, I work through issues where somebody comes to me with something and I say, ‘Well, how did we handle that in the past?’ and then compare (the response) to what I already know. Then I ask myself, ‘Do I need to make a change, or is this fine?’ I am still working my way through a lot of that.”

Before coming to Washougal, Steinbronn spent 25 years with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). At the time of her hiring, she was the commander of PPB’s North Precinct which serves about 190,000 people and has 135 employees.

Prior to her appointment as North Precinct commander, Steinbronn served in a variety of roles at the PPB, including: supervisor for property crimes detectives and a neighborhood response team; commanding officer of the records division; executive officer to assistant chiefs; government relations liaison; and operations manager of the family services division.

As Washougal’s police chief, she oversees a department of 25 employees, including 21 officers.

“(Her transition) was a concern that we had before she came here,” said Zane Freschette, acting commander of the Washougal police force. “We obviously knew how things operate here in a small city, and we were worried that somebody coming from a city the size of Portland might cause a whole host of problems and changes. But it’s been the opposite of that. The experience that she brings has made things easier. This is what she wanted — to work at a smaller agency and have more impact on a community. (That desire) shows up in her actions. The community members have seen it, and the officers have seen it.”

Steinbronn, a 15-year Camas resident, was familiar with Washougal, but said she has learned so much more over the past three months.

“(There’s) definitely a small-town vibe. The people are much friendlier,” she said. “I can walk down the street and talk to my boss or the mayor or a member of council, (whereas in Portland) I would have to make an appointment to do those things, so it’s much easier that way. Being able to showcase what the officers do, that’s going to be a lot easier for me. There’s less barriers.”

Steinbronnn quickly earned respect from her officers with her knowledge, laid-back personality, people skills and ability to decisively respond to any situation, Freschette said.

“She’s very straightforward and honest,” he said of Steinbronn. “She expects everyone to do the right thing, do their best and treat people well. If she doesn’t like something, she’ll address it. If something’s done well, she’ll address it. We know exactly where we stand with her. She’s already well liked within the department.”

Steinbronn has spent a large amount of time visiting businesses, organizations and service groups to acquire a deeper understanding of the community that she’s serving.

“I went to the school board meeting (on Feb. 11) and saw the inner workings of (the Washougal School District),” she said. “I’ve actually been interested in becoming a member of Rotary for years (because it’s) a great way to meet other like-minded people that really are about building community, and so I think Camas-Washougal Rotary Club just voted me in as a member. I’m hoping to get out and do more of that — meet people, let them see me and talk to me and ask me questions. It’s very important to me.”

“There’s been a significant culture shift in the department because she’s been so clear about where she wants the department to go and how to get there, and everybody has snapped into alignment,” he said. “People trust and believe in her message, and we’re all on board and headed in that direction.

“She’s got us re-engaging with the community and looking at things differently. In the past we always engaged well with the citizens that we talked to every day, but she’s made us realize the importance of getting involved at all levels — business, the schools, everything,” he continued. “It’s been reinvigorating. She reminded us of the bigger picture of how important it is to build relationships with people, protect people and be a person in uniform that citizens feel comfortable striking up a conversation with, in addition to enforcing laws. It’s been refreshing.”

Steinbronn said that she “smiles every day” when she drives to work — and not just because her commute is now far easier than it was when she was working in Portland.

“Oh yeah, I’m so happy. I’m very grateful and humbled that they selected me,” she said. “I’m still pinching myself that I have this job. I hope to prove my worth of being selected.”

WPD to drop commander, add captain

Steinbronn is advocating to change the title of the department’s second-in-command from commander to captain.

“(Washougal Police Department) had a commander, and that was an appointed position,” she said. “I was just kind of confused; I thought, ‘Based on the size of the department, why are they calling it commander? Why isn’t it captain?'”

The main difference, Steinbronn said, is that a commander can be appointed by a chief and dismissed at-will, but a captain is selected from an open hiring process and has civil service protection.

“I found that, long story short, they (had a commander) because they didn’t want to go through the civil service process,” Steinbronn said. “I think it’s a more fair and equitable process, because with an appointment … there’s no competitive process.”

Steinbronn has been working with Washougal’s human resources director, Jeanette Cefalo, to put together a testing process for the captain position that will be deployed in April.

“I’m very confident I can find an internal candidate to fit that bill,” Steinbronn said, “but in the event that I couldn’t find someone internally, a civil service process allows me to look outside and hold a competitive process.”

“I want to have a stepping stone to chief in place for when I’m gone so that when I leave, they can promote someone internally and don’t need to do a nationwide search. And also, it’s a normal, natural progression from sergeant to captain.”