Vancouver police chief semi-finalists gather; decision weeks away

All but 1 of 5 candidates attend event; assessments on tap next

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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A public reception for five police chief semi-finalists was Tuesday evening at Vancouver City Hall, but City Manager Eric Holmes said it may be another two months before he announces his decision.

The finalists, which include Acting Chief Chris Sutter, have been interviewed by panels of community members and police officers. Today they'll be assessed on problem-solving skills by three law enforcement officers, including two from outside of Clark County.

Holmes said once he receives feedback, the field will be narrowed and finalists will undergo a psychological assessment, take a polygraph test and be subjected to a background check. Holmes added he'll want to do site visits for out-of-town finalists.

It was after a meeting with Holmes that Police Chief Cliff Cook announced his resignation last year. Cook said he and Holmes reached a mutual agreement that fresh leadership was needed at the department, which has 180 officers. Cook, who was the subject of a no-confidence vote by the police guild in 2010, now heads the Bellingham Police Department.

At the time of the vote, Cook was supported by then-City Manager Pat McDonnell.

Cook, who was hired from Fort Worth, Texas, had to make unpopular cuts as part of citywide reductions, and long-running tension between officers and command staff was not diffused during his tenure. Cook was described as an isolating figure who didn't take the time to get to know his staff, even failing to know some of their names. He was more popular outside the department, particularly among civilian volunteers for the Neighbors on Watch program.

Sutter, who has been with the city since 1992 and was named assistant chief in 2008, has been acting chief since September.

A nationwide search by Bob Murray & Associates yielded approximately 60 applicants.

The salary was posted as under review, but the current annual salary range tops out at $143,000, Holmes said.

Only one semi-finalist, Gresham (Ore.) Police Chief Craig Junginger, didn't attend Tuesday's reception because he was at a National Night Out event. Junginger has been chief of Gresham's police department since 2008 and has also worked for departments in Huntington Beach and Bell in California.

Ronald Ruecker, who resigned his position as superintendent of the Oregon Department of State Police in 2006 to apply for the Vancouver police chief job and was a finalist but lost to Cook, said Monday he's always thought Vancouver would be a great place to work.

After he didn't get the Vancouver job, he served as the director of public safety for the city of Sherwood, Ore., for two years. He currently works in Washington, D.C., as an assistant director of the office of law enforcement coordination for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He said he serves as liaison between senior leadership and umbrella organizations that represent different law enforcement groups, from sheriffs and police chiefs to campus police officers.

Ruecker served as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police from 2007 to '08.

Two other semi-finalists are from California.

James McElvain, a captain with the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, said his coverage area of three cities has a total population of 213,000, larger than the population of Vancouver. Riverside County ranks among the top 50 largest agencies nationwide, with approximately 2,400 sworn officers, McElvain said.

Both McElvain and semi-finalist Paul Walters said they would like to move to the Pacific Northwest. Walters served as city manager/police commissioner for Santa Ana for two years until February, and previously worked as chief of the Santa Ana Police Department from 1988 to 2011. He started with the department in 1979.

Before Bob Murray & Associates was hired to conduct a nationwide search, the city sought help gathering input on what police officers and the community want in a police chief. A team from the Washington, D.C.-based International City/County Management Association had started doing interviews with 30 stakeholders, including 15 people from within the department. Community members interviewed included Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik, Evergreen Public Schools Superintendent John Deeder, Mick Hoffman, director of safety and security for Vancouver Public Schools, and members of business and neighborhood organizations.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com