Uncertainty in police ranks

Grants that help fight domestic violence, other major issues can’t be counted on

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Domestic Violence resources

Places to go if you or someone you know is in a domestic violence situation:

Washington State Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-562-6025.

YWCA of Clark County: http://ywcaclarkcounty.org; general line: 360-696-0167; hotline: 360-695-0501.

Vancouver Police Domestic Violence Unit: At http://cityofvancouver.us, type “Domestic Violence” into the search bar, select first result.

When Vancouver Police Sgt. Mike Davis walks into his office every morning, he faces a grim task: Going over every domestic violence call his department gets.

On Tuesday, after the long holiday weekend, he ran down a list of 67 reports. Felony assault. Strangulation. Unlawful imprisonment. In all, he’ll pore over about 3,500 such calls a year.

Last year, Clark County prosecuted 275 felony domestic violence cases and more than 1,800 misdemeanor charges. Both figures are on track to be even higher this year.

But rather than drown under the number of calls, the unit — with the help of state and federal grant money — does as much as it can with each case. The unit has an unusual arrangement that allows prosecutors, detectives, victim advocates and even parole officers who work domestic violence to be all under one roof.

They talk. They spot trends and notice when the same name is coming up in calls over and over again. They respond at all hours to gather evidence that puts batterers behind bars.

“This is a unit that I think is critical,” Davis said, talking about the correlation between domestic violence and child abuse and other crimes.

Yet, as violent crime rose in Vancouver by 2.5 percent in 2010, domestic violence prosecution and several other key police operations are at the mercy of mercurial budget talks in Washington D.C.

Police Chief Cliff Cook is so worried about the uncertain future of those funds that he warned the city council last month that his department must wean itself from grant money. Vancouver can’t afford to have a domestic violence unit — or child abuse or gang unit for that matter — disappear overnight if politicians put that program on the chopping block.

More-stable revenue must be found to keep critical positions funded, he said.

“We have actual employee positions that hinge on those grants,” Cook said this week. “There’s currently no funding available to backfill those grant positions if those grants aren’t renewed.”

But what that means isn’t yet clear: It’s possible more savings could be found within the department, but the chief is also not-so-subtly urging a possible levy.

The Vancouver Police Department has about $4.4 million in grants and contracts that pay for 23 positions. The current domestic violence grant is $353,409 to cover overtime, equipment, training and victim advocacy services. But the unit has long been dependent on grants: A 2007 grant funded a detective position for two years and then required the city to keep the position for four years, until 2013. Other state and federal grants have helped beef up staff since 2003.

The specialty units’ work is so important that if the money disappeared, the police chief said, he would have to restructure the department, getting rid of school resource officers, neighborhood patrol officers and regular traffic patrols.

“Some other essential part of the department becomes decimated,” Cook said.

While Cook suggested a “reinvestment” in the department through dedicated public safety revenues to the city council, he got a tepid response toward any operating levies.

“Right now, additional operating revenue is not appropriate,” Mayor Tim Leavitt said during the Aug. 15 meeting. “We have to re-engineer.”

But departments have been under orders to streamline for several years now. Among other moves, the police department has scaled back overtime from 8 percent of its budget to 4 percent ($1.16 million), and eliminated its property-crime detectives and a dedicated DUII patrol car. Vancouver has 192 sworn officers, or 1.16 officers for every 1,000 citizens. It has a 2011 budget of $30.1 million.

“I think we’ve dug pretty deep,” Cook said. “But we need to take another look to be absolutely sure.”

However, the chief is assembling what could be viewed as an exploratory committee for a future bid with voters.

Cook said he wants to start with a broad cross-section of the population and then move to a dedicated group of 10 or so people to explore options.

“We need to start asking, ‘What is it you want from your police department?’” he said. “We need to determine what level of commitment there is from the general public to fund these kinds of services.”

The department will still go after federal and state grants for equipment, which helps officers do their work more efficiently, as long as there’s not a large local match or other stipulations, Cook said. But the days of adding personnel via a system that’s growing shakier and shakier are over.

Back at the domestic violence unit, Davis, the supervising sergeant, asked what the chief had said about the budget.

Losing grant-funded positions would be “devastating” to his unit, he said.

Domestic violence victims often recant their calls or original testimony, often out of fear, Davis said. The grant money allows the unit to be staffed well enough to go to domestic violence crime scenes at all hours to gather evidence — which they then use, with or without victim testimony, to put offenders in prison. Show up too late and the scene will likely have been changed or completely cleaned up.

“Domestic violence doesn’t happen 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday,” Davis said. “Grant funding allows us to respond immediately beyond normal business hours. Grant funding is critical.”

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