For the last nine months or so, many around Yelm have probably caught a glimpse of Rob Carlson, the city’s broad-shouldered, bearded, soft-spoken assistant police chief.
He’s relatively new to the position — though far from new to the profession — and will likely help lead the department into its next generation of community engagement and safety following the nearing retirement of Police Chief Todd Stancil.
“We’ve got a great community. We’re very blessed — I’m very blessed — to work in this community, and really to work for the City of Yelm,” Carlson said. “It’s just a good place to work. It is a family atmosphere.”
Carlson’s family lived in the Olympia area when he left the Air Force back in 1992. Law enforcement service didn’t run in his family, but he was eager to recreate the camaraderie he enjoyed while serving in the military.
Then, the Yelm Police Department came along.
“The Yelm Police Department had an ad in the paper for reserve officers,” Carlson said. “And so, in 1993, I applied for that and got the reserve officer job … My ultimate job was to be a Washington State Trooper.”
The State Patrol at the time was undergoing a hiring freeze though, and Carlson thought of the move to Yelm as a promising way to build on-the-job experience.
But after finding no open positions with the State Patrol, Carlson decided to take a position as a deputy with the Mohave County Sheriff Department in Arizona after more than a year with YPD.
“When I first got down there, I enjoyed the weather,” he recalled.
Going from police reserves to serving for a county sheriff was kind of like going from high school football to a college program — there was a big leap as far as experience to do the job. But he learned pretty quickly, he said, and enjoyed every step of the process.
“Once you get it, and things slow down a little bit for you on the job, it was, in my opinion, I would have done it for free,” he said. “It was the greatest job, and I realized that I was absolutely put on this earth to do it.”
During his tenure in Arizona, Carlson also spent time with the Lake Havasu City Police Department, near the California border.
It was during this time, around 2000, that he thought about coming home to Washington.
“It was getting to the point where the heat was bothering me,” he said.
Carlson was hired by the Seattle Police Department in 2001.
Going from the small, lakeside community of Lake Havasu City, population roughly 44,000 back then, to the Emerald City of more than 570,000 was another big step.
Carlson said this step up was like going from college football to the NFL.
“There were more pieces in the puzzle,” Carlson said. “Even with seven years of experience in law enforcement, going to that kind of agency, you had to get caught up with the speed.”
During his early years, Carlson notes there were discussions around the nature of policing, specifically on racial profiling and the relationship with Black and minority communities.
“I think that was a good thing. Obviously, our education and becoming better at what we do is positive. You just transition through it,” he said.
After working for SPD for about a year, Carlson returned to Lake Havasu City in 2003 due to family needs. With experience under his belt, Carlson moved up and worked on a gang unit.
But his love for the Pacific Northwest would again bring him back to Washington, this time in 2005 when he accepted an officer position with Yelm police.
In 2007, Carlson was promoted by the department to sergeant, and last November was offered the assistant chief position.
Yelm hasn’t had an assistant chief in many years.
In an email, Police Chief Stancil said there were multiple reasons the department chose to move forward with the new position. It would create a succession plan for his retirement in about three years, the assistant chief would work with the regional Traffic Emergency Plan established after the 2017 Amtrak derailment in Dupont, work with other agencies in implementing I-940, and working with the school resources officer to expand services and needs.
“He’s the obvious and perfect option for that position,” Stancil said in a later phone call. “When he came here in 2005, he became a patrol officer and within two years was promoted to sergeant, which says a lot about him … He’s very well-rounded.”
Stancil said the department is working on a couple big-ticket initiatives, which include implementing body cameras for all patrol officers, establishing a K-9 narcotics program, and expanding the city’s citizens police academy and creating an advisory group.
But some of those projects, which could take years, might not be implemented until after Stancil moves on.
“He didn’t have to come to Yelm, he chose to come to Yelm. Just the best fit, by far,” Stancil said.