Vancouver police chief: Department can’t rely on grants

Funding for 20-plus officers to expire in 2012

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 
photoVancouver Police Chief Cliff Cook

More than 20 police positions paid for by state and federal grants are set to expire by the middle of next year, and Vancouver’s police chief said Monday that the department must wean itself off that money to prop up its staffing levels.

As politicians in Olympia and Washington, D.C., continue to slash budgets, Police Chief Cliff Cook told the city council that Vancouver can’t continue to rely on grant money to support units that include school resource officers, and auto theft and gang-fighting detectives.

Vancouver has about $1.8 million in grants and contracts that pay for 23 positions. But the amount of grants is shrinking — and Cook said he thinks it won’t be going up anytime soon.

“We can’t rely on grants,” he said. “They’ve been great for us, they’ve helped us bridge some gaps, but we’ve got to find another way.”

Cook said the department can reapply for several of the grants, but those dollars are far from guaranteed. Over the next few years, he said council members are going to have to decide just what they expect from the police department.

The instability of jobs in the department is also hurting morale, he said.

“They do a good job, but they’re feeling somewhat …” he said, pausing. “There’s some anxiety in our agency. Most cops want to have a clear view of what we’re doing, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.”

It’s also making it difficult for Vancouver to attract good, qualified cops to fill vacancies.

The city has a $2.6 million grant from the federal Department of Justice to hire 10 new officers, but thus far a series of retirements and other departures, along with a poor candidate pool, has kept them from hiring a single officer, Cook said.

Staffing in the department is “sporadic, up and down at best,” as the city’s population continues to grow, the chief said. Vancouver has 192 sworn officers, or 1.16 officers for every 1,000 citizens. It has a 2011 budget of $30.1 million.

While response times on the most urgent of police calls were answered in an average of 4 minutes 27 seconds in 2010, there were only 81 of those highest-priority calls among the thousands that VPD responds to, Cook said. Response times are likely to climb, and he pointed to a 2.5 percent increase in violent crime in 2010, counter to national trends that show violent crimes are decreasing.

Reporting crimes and other police work has also become more difficult since 40 percent of its civilian staff was laid off in 2009, Cook said.

He encouraged the city council to find a way for a “reinvestment” in the department through dedicated public safety revenues.

But that suggestion was rebuffed by the city council, which has said it won’t ask voters for any taxes for operating costs until city departments finish total reorganizations and all union negotiations (every contract in the city is currently open) are complete.

Each council member commended its police force for hard work, and praised Cook and his administration for beginning a task of reorganizing the police force.

“Right now, additional operating revenue is not appropriate,” Mayor Tim Leavitt said. “We have to re-engineer.”

Councilor Larry Smith suggested a zero-sum process to rebuild the department from the ground up. He likened using grants to a person hooked on credit cards, in that it has to be paid back later.

Cook outlined a number of ways his department is tackling its downward-trending budget, including cutting overtime costs from 8 percent of its budget to 4 percent, or $1.16 million in 2010.Increased use of technology is also making headway, he said. Civilianization of the department, including more use of the Neighbors on Watch volunteers and community outreach, can also help make a dent in low-level crimes, he said.

He closed by telling the seven elected officials that he is “astounded” by the work his department does with what resources it has.

“We enjoy what we do,” Cook said. “The frustrating part of the job for most … we want to provide (a higher level of) service, and sometimes we can’t.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall