Former Vancouver Police chief, others reflect on legacy

Cook leaves behind grateful volunteers, cool ties with union

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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You'd expect to see a lot of uniforms at a going-away party for a police chief.

But which uniforms were there — and which weren't — spoke volumes about the controversial tenure of former Vancouver Police Chief Cliff Cook.

The navy blue ones worn by Cook's officers could be counted on one hand.

Rather, the room was dominated by the maroon polo shirts favored by the civilian volunteers who make up the Neighbors on Watch program Cook started after his arrival five years ago. The crowd at City Hall was rounded off by leaders of other local police departments, a smattering of mostly former politicians, and other community members.

Cook, 57, departed last week after announcing in July that he and City Manager Eric Holmes reached a mutual agreement that "fresh leadership" is needed at the 180-officer strong VPD.

His five years in the spot are the longest tenure of any chief since Rod Frederiksen, who served five years and four months from 1991 till 1996. Now, both rank-and-file union members and leadership are hoping Cook's replacement can help mend a deeply scarred department.

And as Holmes launches a search for a new figurehead for VPD, current and former VPD officers, local leaders and community members offered insights about Cook's successes and failures — and how they can help inform Holmes' next choice.

Many of those who worked for Cook describe a detached leader who blew an opportunity to bond with staff and lacked perspective and relationships when it came to making decisions.

Many, largely outside the department, seemed to know much more about the man, who they described as approachable and direct. They lauded him for creating the Neighbors on Watch program and for implementing neighborhood patrol officers. Their stories included the police chief, the father of a disabled adult son, spending the day on the roof of a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop to raise money for the Special Olympics.

"Here's my hope for Vancouver: my hope is they get a chief who comes in and provides the stability for the organization that they really need," said former VPD Commander Scott Bieber, who left this year to become chief of the Walla Walla Police Department.

Acrimony from start

When Cook walked into police headquarters in 2007 the department was already in disarray. The Vancouver Police Guild was already at deep odds with leadership. And the bulk of Cook's career — more than 25 years in Fort Worth, Texas — was with a department in a state with vastly different laws and attitudes about labor.

What's more is that Cook, who had a solid history of passing tax levies, was hired by former City Manager Pat McDonnell to raise similar money here. Instead, the economic rug was swept out from under those plans.

"I admired the chief a lot," said former City Councilor Pat Jollota at Cook's going-away party. "He came into a difficult situation, and he seemed frustrated at every turn."

Guild President Jeff Kipp said last month that the union was optimistic when Cook took over the department from Brian Martinek, who quit to move to Portland.

"We expected a voice of reason and calm," Kipp said. "We didn't get that from him."

Instead, the situation deteriorated, with Cook and the guild tossing blame for poor communication and acrimony back and forth. It culminated in a vote of no-confidence against Cook's leadership style in 2010.

At the time, the guild blamed cronyism and pointed fingers for mistakes at assistant chiefs Nannette Kistler and Chris Sutter. (Sutter is serving as interim chief; Kistler requested and received a demotion to commander after Cook said he was leaving).

A continued refrain from those who worked for him is that Cook didn't take much time to get to know his underlings. One department veteran, a sergeant, said that he wasn't able to give many anecdotes about his boss of five years because he never got to know him well enough.

It was well known that Cook, who worked in an isolated administration building near Fort Vancouver, didn't master the names of everyone in the department, spread out over the east and west precincts.

Kipp said that disconnect hurt negotiations, whether it was leading up to the no-confidence vote, or dealing with the disciplinary fallout from a sex scandal involving a VPD officer and a confidential informant.

The attitude was "you don't fraternize with rank and file," Kipp said. "Cook and I both have Harleys, but we don't ride together, never have."

The labor leader called the lack of contact a problem that led to "dehumanizing" both sides. "When you get into these kinds of (discipline) cases, you don't have the human perspective."

Bieber said he now knows how difficult it is to be a police chief.

"I knew that to be successful coming over (to Walla Walla) and taking this job that I was going to need to get out and meet the officers, and meet the dispatchers, and meet the community," Bieber said. When asked if he felt Cook did the same, he said, "no comment."

Holmes has repeatedly stated that one of his criteria in looking for a new chief will be finding one familiar with Washington state labor laws. Cook earned $138,420 in 2011, and received about $106,000 in severance.

A private guy

Cook, for his part, said he wasn't surprised that not many of his officers came to his going-away party, held Aug. 29. Many stopped by, called, or emailed to say goodbye, he said.

He's a private guy: Most don't know that Cook and his wife, Gina, have an adopted adult son, 30, who is disabled and a Special Olympics participant.

And notably, Cook struggled with the names and titles of other local law enforcement leaders, including Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey. It wasn't just his own department where names were a problem. He laughed when asked about it about it the next day.

"I'm great with faces; I notice changes," he said. (This reporter can attest: Cook noticed a slight change in hair color that even my own friends and co-workers failed to spot. One VPD member called it a "nutty professor" quality about the chief.) "Names have always been difficult for me. I try."

He said "there's some truth" to the assertions that he kept his distance, "partly because of the ongoing conflict with the executive board (of the guild)."

"I think that created an environment that stifled the ability for my officers to get to know me on an individual basis," he said. If they had interacted outside of work with him, Cook said "individuals would receive criticism from their peers."

Standing near a wall with his arms folded for most of Cook's going-away party, VPD Sgt. Rod Trumpf said he was disappointed he didn't see more of his fellow officers there. Trumpf said he had a good relationship with the chief.

"He was tasked with guidance from the council and city manager's office," he said. "He always seemed to try and do what was best for the department."

Overall, the former chief said he viewed his job as one where he was responsible for getting his officers what was needed.

"I hope people look past the controversy between management and labor and see the great work done by the department," Cook said.

No money to expand

And that wasn't easy.

"I came here under the scenario that I would build the department," Cook said. "I tried to structure the department for that growth, and that growth didn't occur. In fact, it was lost."

At least 20 jobs in the department have been lost in the five years that Cook was here, and no police levy is in sight.

Cook said that he felt McDonnell, the former city manager, "had an optimistic view" of the city's ongoing budget problems.

Even those who criticize Cook's leadership also praise his efforts to keep VPD whole. Kipp credited steps, as did Bieber.

"I have to give Cliff kudos for the (neighborhood patrol officer) concept," Bieber said. "It was absolutely a phenomenal idea. On the flip side, in order to do it, he got rid of property crimes detectives."

As the turnout at his departure celebration showed, Cook's biggest backers were certainly his NOW volunteers.

Esther Short Neighborhood President Paula Person graduated from the inaugural NOW academy in the fall of 2008. The program has since grown to more than 90 volunteers. She and other members choked up as they presented Cook with a plaque and signed letter recognizing his service. Person said she was sad to see him go.

"I ran into him when he was out of uniform at the farmers market and he was very approachable and friendly," Person said. "He came to several national night-out events and talked with all the people and enjoyed the ice cream bars with the rest of us."

Standing among the nearly 100 well-wishers, Cook's first words of gratitude were also to the NOW volunteers. "I've been fortunate enough to land in a community where, as you can see, people are willing to get involved," he said.

Cook said he's not sure what his next move will be. He and his family will spend several months traveling the Pacific Northwest before he looks at future moves after the first of the year.

That's exactly what the city will be doing as well. While Sutter stays the course, Holmes said he plans on working with consultants to appraise the department and inform his next hire. Community, union, minority and other groups will also weigh in on the decision.

"That's part of why I want to do this assessment work, is not to develop a prescription for the next chief to implement, but rather to get a better more clear picture of what the task is of being the chief of police for the city of Vancouver," Holmes said. "So whoever the next person is, they're our chief."

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