Police chief for the people
Staff Writer | September 29, 2022 1:09 AM
SPIRIT LAKE — Dennis Sanchez likes knowing that if his police car broke down or had a flat tire, citizens would stop to help before a tow truck would arrive.
“That doesn't happen everywhere,” he said.
Spirit Lake’s police chief believes a reason for that is the solid relationship between the town’s small police force and its 5,000 or so residents.
“I want to make sure that this community has it ingrained in them that they know that this is their police department,” Sanchez said as he sat in his office at the police department on Maine Street on a weekday morning.
If he has emphasized one thing in his five years as Spirit Lake's top cop, it’s that citizens can count on their local law enforcement agency.
“This is their team. We work for them. And the minute they stop trusting us, we don't exist,” he said.
Since Sanchez came onboard, Spirit Lake has seen strong growth and it’s had an effect on police. They are responding to more calls, despite a staffing shortage.
Last year, it received 9,298 calls. In 2020, it was 7,121. While there were just over 3,000 were traffic-related offenses for those two years, there were 45 assaults/batteries, 80 DUIs, 104 domestic disputes and 26 sexual assaults/offenses.
“When you have a smaller team, you know any decrease in staffing has a huge effect,” he said.
Spirit Lake police, with a budget just north of $800,000, would have eight sworn officers when fully staffed. It’s been operating with five, but just brought a lateral-move officer on board.
New recruits make about $22.50 to start, while lateral officers can make about $26.
Hiring qualified officers has become a bigger challenge than in years past. Some can’t afford to move to Spirit Lake, where the cost of housing has climbed, like elsewhere in North Idaho, and being a police officer "maybe isn't as attractive as it was a few years ago,” Sanchez said.
But he insists it is not a negative.
“What it's done specifically for our department is just forced us to become a little more creative in our hiring methods, or a little more proactive than we normally would,” he said.
Hard work goes a long way with Sanchez.
He graduated from Post Falls High in 1996 and served four years in the Army. He was an officer at Rathdrum for four years, and 10 years for Post Falls, before Spirit Lake for three years. Sanchez was a sergeant at Spirit Lake before being promoted to interim chief and then named chief.
"I've seen some of the bad, some of the good, but I've seen how far we've come," he said. "And I've seen now we have a proud, amazing team, the best team I've ever worked with in my 22 years of law enforcement."
Even with an officer shortage, Sanchez said the city is covered 24/7 by law enforcement police.
A reserve program helps, as does their relationship with neighboring law enforcement agencies, which he called “critical.”
He's proud to say his team does more with less.
“And that just takes a little more brainpower, a little more ingenuity, a little more thinking outside the box," he said.
Life is not always serene in Spirit Lake. Police can get a few dozen calls each day. The Maine Street bars, while mostly peaceful, can see some excitement.
Last year, the town had two suspicious deaths and sex and child trafficking cases that involved multiple suspects, victims and jurisdictions.
“We certainly don't have a dull moment,” Sanchez said.
He believes the department has made great strides in terms of service and training by setting priorities and making sacrifices.
“We've tried to maximize the output we can get from each employee. And when we do that, it challenges them and it makes them better than they were yesterday,” he said.
The youthful-looking Sanchez believes in holding employees accountable. At the same time, he avoids micromanaging and gives them the latitude to respond to situations as they see best while maintaining standards.
"And I am constantly amazed that given that, what they are able to do," he said.
In Sanchez's eyes, it takes humility to be a good cop.
“Some of the worst police officers I have been around in my life are people who think they are better than the people they are serving," he said. "We are no better than the people we're serving."
Being police chief in a small town comes with responsibility — and visibility. People know Sanchez, whether he’s in uniform or not.
While it’s a mostly administrative post, he makes it a point to get out in a patrol car and attend local functions, like homecoming.
Sanchez looks at it as a chance to strengthen not just community ties, but connect with Idaho's political and business leaders.
“Look, you probably will call the police once or twice in your life and 99% of the time, it's probably a negative. So my job is to get out there and show the positive part of everything," he said.
It’s made a difference.
It's not unusual for citizens to drop off doughnuts, vegetables and gift certificates as a show of appreciation.
“We have a lot of support here,” Sanchez said. "I mean, you won't see any of us see somebody walking by and not wave or say 'hi.' We're never going to be too busy for our citizens.”