Vancouver’s most wanted: Qualified police recruits

City’s department spends thousands of dollars, many months trying to find the best new officers With : A7 cost sidebar

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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As he stood in the Hudson’s Bay High gym, a spot that on a recent Sunday was acrid with sweat and full of more than 160 men and women hoping to qualify for public safety jobs, Shaun Brooks was the rare exception.

While he was surrounded by nervous faces, Brooks, 25, said he wasn’t worried at all. Ahead was a timed 1.5-mile run, a 300-meter sprint, situps and pushups. But Brooks trained for more than three months and flew more than 1,000 miles from his home in Vail Valley, Colo., to get here. He was sure he’d eventually score a job with the Vancouver or Battle Ground police.

“It’s not nerve-wracking to me,” the married father of two and former corrections officer said. “I’m just going to go out and give it everything I’ve got.”

But before he can even hope to pin on a badge, Brooks and his fellow candidates have a long wait ahead hiring a few good men (and women) is a costly and lengthy process. It’s easy to imagine that once an agency decides to hire new police, it won’t be long before new hires are walking a beat. In reality, it can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In 2011, the Vancouver Police Department spent $499,488 on recruiting, mostly in staff time. It hired seven officers. One more was brought on in January.

Five officers were hired to make up for attrition due to retirement or officers leaving. Three are the first hires on a $2.58 million federal grant to pay for 10 cops a grant given to the city in 2010. The grant pays for the salaries of 10 officers but it doesn’t cover the cost to go out and find them.

“It’s proving very difficult to find qualified applicants,” Vancouver Police Chief Cliff Cook said.

The reasons are myriad: Wannabes have to pass a litany of tests and interviews that screen them for physical ability, knowledge, background and character. Very few can reach the high bar Vancouver, as one of the largest police forces in the state, sets for its recruits. Yet there are more applicants than ever, possibly linked to the poor economy, said Vancouver Sgt. Deb Libbey, who leads the department’s recruitment efforts.

“The standards right now are higher than ever,” Libbey said. “The applicant pool is larger than ever. Now, people are just applying and getting eliminated. They’re not even looking to see if they meet the requirements.”

The hidden costs of “free money” is spurring Vancouver to draft a citywide grant policy. Before any department takes a grant, the entire slate of costs involved with it must be examined, City Manager Eric Holmes said.

“On its face, it may look like an excellent opportunity,” Holmes said. “But when you look at the costs to fulfill the entire grant, it may not be.”

Flunking physical fitness

Among those who may have been overconfident and underqualified during the public safety testing last month was an overweight young man who collapsed during the 300-meter sprint his first physical challenge of the day claiming dizziness. Paramedics took him, conscious, to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

He was among the approximately one-third of candidates who are eliminated in the first stage of their journey toward becoming a sworn officer, a job that pays $83,990 in salary and benefits the first year to those with a four-year degree.

Up first are basic tests of written and physical aptitude, required by the state. In one minute, a candidate must do a minimum of 30 situps and 21 pushups. Candidates have a maximum of 71 seconds to complete the 300-meter run, and up to 14 minutes and 31 seconds to run 1.5 miles. Each test is weighted, and candidates must do better than the minimum on some of the tests to earn enough points to pass.

Vancouver, along with many other local agencies, corrections facilities and some fire departments, contracts with Public Safety Testing of Lynnwood. The company travels the state holding the tests; Vancouver pays the private company $5,000 a year for the testing. Applicants also pay to test, starting at $45 to send scores to two agencies, with prices increasing as they send their results to more departments.

Darnell St. Bernard flew from Richmond, Va., to test for Vancouver, Longview, the Port of Seattle and other police departments. The standard of living in Washington drew him to Vancouver to test, he said. After passing a written exam, he blew through the physical requirements, finishing 35 pushups in one minute (the maximum point earner) easily, adding he could have completed 60 if they had counted. Though he clearly can move swiftly, the 25-year-old said he knew it could be quite some time and a battery of psychological, polygraph, background and other tests before he would know if he’d be moving west.

“It’s a long process … but I think in the long run, I could see many different doors and opportunities open,” said St. Bernard, who graduated with a degree in economics but is now attracted to a job in law enforcement.

Months-long process

Those who meet Vancouver’s initial standards begin a long process that runs at least six to nine months, said Libbey, the sergeant who runs the department’s recruiting.

Libbey and one other officer work in recruitment full time. Additional staff is called in as necessary. The bulk of the nearly $500,000 spent on recruitment last year was in staff time, $466,316.

“We’re somewhat backed up because we don’t have the staffing to get through the pool,” Libbey said. “At the beginning of the year, I’d have guessed we’d be done by now.”

Between January and September 2011, 418 people had submitted qualifying scores to Vancouver. From that pool, 245 were chosen for the next step, a round of video tests administered by the department’s recruiting staff. Of those, 173 took the video tests just 53 passed.

Then come panel interviews, a behavioral traits assessment, a background interview, polygraph and on-site background testing. Candidates can be and are knocked out at each level if their history or character sets off red flags, Libbey said.

Honesty about past transgressions is the best policy. Some sins can be forgiven, but lying or “failing to recall” incidents shows a person may not be trustworthy.

As of September of last year, travel for on-site interviews cost $5,223. Libbey said background detectives have traveled as far as Guam to investigate a potential hire.

“That’s the value we put on making sure we’re thorough,” she said.

Grants carry risk

Grants fund not only positions VPD has 17 grant-funded jobs in its 192-member force but equipment and technology.

Handouts from the state and federal level are risky: They fund key positions in essential units such as gang prevention, auto theft, sex offender monitoring and domestic violence, but they’re also not a permanent surety.

Police chief Cook has consistently told the city council that his department is paying for key programs with grant money that could disappear on the whims of financing or bureaucrats at a higher level. For that reason, he’s said he’ll back off pursuing grants that pay for personnel.

“I’ll still seek grant funds for equipment and technology, but we have to be certain about no matching requirements and no commitment to fund the program beyond the grant,” Cook said.

Money that comes and goes from year to year also makes planning for hiring surges difficult, Libbey said. A grant comes in, and the same amount of staff is left to handle more and more candidates. Other officers can be pulled in to help, but that takes time.

“The difficult thing is the lack of a dedicated funding stream that allows us to plan” for hiring blitzes, Libbey said.

At the Public Safety Testing event on Feb. 12, Sarah Ruddell of Vancouver said she’s one of those hopeful to see departments continue to hire, grant money or no. The 37-year-old mother said she’s passed initial tests eight times, only to be stopped farther down the road.

“You get so far, and then they aren’t hiring anymore,” said Ruddell, who said she was a finalist at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office before the funding was lost for her prospective position. “You just have to wait and keep trying and hope you make it past everybody else.”

Libbey said that she can’t see a better system for screening for those best suited to hold a gun, and the law, in their hands than the one Vancouver’s got.

“The end product is good I think it works,” she said.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.