Vancouver Police Chief Cliff Cook — whose controversial five-year tenure has been marked by a no-confidence vote against him by his rank-and-file, along with cuts to staffing and budgets — will resign effective Sept. 1, City Manager Eric Holmes said Friday.
Holmes said the decision came after monthslong talks between him and the chief about the future of the department, particularly around operational, fiscal and cultural issues.
“We reached a mutual decision that charting the next chapter of VPD will require a shift in course and a fresh leadership approach,” Holmes said.
An external law enforcement professional will be brought in to manage the department as the city launches a nationwide search for a replacement.
Cook is on a scheduled vacation and out of the area until July 23, his assistant said.
“My time in Vancouver has been a rich professional experience,” Cook said in a news release sent by the city. “After thorough discussions with the city manager and assessment of the challenges the department will face over the coming years, we came to the conclusion that the next chapter of VPD will benefit from fresh leadership.”
Cook will be the third police chief to leave the city in 12 years. He leaves behind a department that has been wracked with controversy, much of which began prior to his arrival in 2007 from Fort Worth, Texas.
Much of Cook’s time leading the department has been marked by strife. Along with budget cuts and layoffs, he’s dealt with the fallout of the high-profile lawsuit and subsequent $1.65 million discrimination settlement to former Officer Navin Sharma (who died in 2010 of cancer); a no-confidence vote by the Vancouver Police Guild against his leadership style; a scandal involving an officer having sexual relationship with a paid confidential informant; implementing recommendations by an outside consulting group; numerous grievances brought by the union; and Holmes’ overturning of Cook’s decision to fire an officer.
The city manager called the last half-decade “dynamic” for Vancouver’s police. But he also praised Cook, who earned $138,420 in 2011.
“He’s done phenomenal work here over the last five years,” Holmes said. “He’s reorganized the department, maintained community policing and secured over $10 million worth of grants.”
Cook also helped in the creation of Vancouver’s successful NOW police volunteer program.
Still, Holmes added, “When you look at the issues facing us over the last five years, and over the next five years, and how best to tackle those issues, I think fresh leadership is part of that.”
Union weighs in
The consistent tension between management and the officers union did not play heavily into the decision for Cook to move on, Holmes said.
“Those issues are not isolated to just Chief Cook,” Holmes noted.
Vancouver Police Guild President Jeff Kipp agreed that management-labor problems were there before Cook’s arrival — but added that they didn’t get better when he took charge. He said the union wishes Cook well.
“The city manager is absolutely doing the right thing,” Kipp said. “I agree with him that he says it’s time for a new approach. But there’s a responsibility on labor’s part as well to meet him halfway on that and say ‘Let’s start looking forward.'”
The 180-member union would like to be as much a part of the hiring process as appropriate, Kipp said. He declined to say if the union would like the new chief to clean house with the rest of the police administration.
But he did point to some still in the department as behind some of the most controversial decisions — the ones that have lead to arbitration, lawsuits and poor morale.
“I would like for this next chief to look at the decisions that have been made in the last five to seven years … and work to ensure that we don’t keep repeating this,” Kipp said. “If that means he has to deal with the decision makers in those cases, so be it. But we can’t keep doing this.”
Hopes for growth
When he was hired, one of Cook’s main objectives was to coordinate the passage of a police levy to help the department grow. Instead, the economy faltered and instead of being the leader of an expanding department, Cook was forced to contract.
“When he was brought on board it was with the expectation that the department would grow,” Holmes said. “That also complicated internal leadership demands — he went into a layoff mode and a roll-back mode.”
The city council, which has hiring and firing power over only the city manager, nonetheless showed support for the city’s chief. When the union passed a vote of no-confidence in 2010, the council indicated it stood behind Cook, although Mayor Tim Leavitt said an outside investigation of the VPD by the Department of Justice would be welcome.
Cook also faced pressure to implement changes recommended by the Matrix Consulting Group, which was hired in 2010 to study and help fix the department’s cultural issues.
The disciplinary matrix, one of the consulting group’s suggestions, was put to a hard test last year, when Cook — based on the advice of his command staff — fired Officer Brian Billingsley. Billingsley was terminated over his involvement with and knowledge of the inappropriate sexual relationship between former Officer Erik McGarrity and Tegan Rushworth, a former rodeo queen, methamphetamine user and confidential informant. McGarrity resigned before he was fired.
Holmes overturned Billingsley’s termination, instead handing him a 28-day unpaid suspension. It was the first time the city manager had ever reversed such a decision. A state arbitrator later reduced Holmes’ discipline even further.
The loss of Cook means that Vancouver is now looking to replace two department heads; Pete Mayer, director of Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation, left in June to take a job in public health in Snohomish County.