By Matt Nagle
Where Pierce County and Tacoma law enforcement is concerned, 2021 promises to be an interesting year. Not only is Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor retiring after nearly 20 years as the county’s longest-serving sheriff; Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell has also announced his retirement after 36 years of service as the department’s the longest serving chief, effective this January.
This leaves the two top positions open for someone new to take over, and at a time when police and community relations have been very strained locally and across the country due to police shootings and the resulting public outrage.
According to Ramsdell, in his profession there never really is a good time to leave, as it’s the nature of police work to face changing issues practically every day. He did make it clear, though, that he is not retiring because of recent controversies surrounding the Tacoma Police Department in the officer involved shootings of Manuel Ellis and Bennie Branch.
“That is not a consideration for me,” he told the Tacoma Weekly. “We go through things all the time – that’s part of the job. I’ve been planning to retire over the last year or so. I’m not leaving because of controversies or anything of that nature – it’s just time.”
Planning his retirement a year in advance serves several purposes, including allowing time to help find his successor and help the city process through this budget year. Ramsdell said he also wants to help usher in another year of accreditation for the department through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, known as the gold standard in public safety. The Tacoma Police Department is one of our state’s few nationally accredited agencies.
“I wanted to make sure I was on board for that because it’s a huge accomplishment for our department,” he said.
It’s too early to know who may be up for Ramsdell’s position, but he noted that “…we have a lot of great young leaders moving up in law enforcement in Pierce County.”
When Ramsdell came to the department in 1985, things were much different than they are now and he was there for all of it.
“Things have changed throughout my entire career. When I first came to the department, it was more traditional policing. We didn’t have community policing here. There was one officer assigned to community policing when I first came on. I think that helped my perspective in regard to being community-based in our approach at policing.
“That’s what I took to the street when I went out and tried to build good relationships,” Ramsdell said of his patrol years in Hilltop. “Tacoma has grown in so many ways. We have our moments, but it’s not like it used to be.”
He pointed to the city’s Project PEACE (Partnering for Equity and Community Engagement) as an example of how community policing can build trust and bring officers and residents to work together.
Always being interested in law enforcement, after graduating from Wilson High School, Ramsdell enrolled at the University of Puget Sound and earned a degree in urban studies. His senior thesis was on police and community relations.
“After college, I started applying for police departments and Tacoma was the police department I wanted to work for the most. At that time, I saw it as a great and progressive department. I took the test in 1984 and was hired in May 1985.”
When asked to talk about his proudest moment as chief, Ramsdell had some trouble finding just one to focus on. However, he quickly turned to the Jennifer Bastian and Michella Welch cold case murders, both girls having been murdered in 1986. Bastian was just 13 years old and Michella was 12.
“For me, the biggest and proudest moment was just recently with being able to let Jennifer Bastian’s family and Michella Welch’s family know that we captured their daughters’ killers,” he said. “Being able to tell their families that we got the individuals responsible is the biggest highlight.
“Our detectives did an outstanding job with that case. We have one detective committed to cold cases and that’s something I wanted to maintain. If we don’t have someone like that in our department, what’s going to happen to those cases?”
Ramsdell praised everyone in the Tacoma PD, and said that it is they who he will miss the most.
“I’m very proud of my career and people I work with. It’s an incredibly professional department. The people who work here do a great job day in and day out and work to build great relationships throughout our community and have done so for many, many years. That has been helpful for us in a lot of ways, even as we’re experiencing the things we’re experiencing now. We have so many wonderful people out there who are engaged in our community and are doing things to make the community better and it’s a pleasure working with them.”
What is Ramsdell going to do in retirement? “I’ll work on my golf game, but I have no plans right now. We’ll see what happens. I’ll take it day by day and figure it out when I get there.”