City pays to prepare police

A rookie's training, at nearly $66,000, is a gamble; Vancouver recruiters work to make it likely to pay

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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photoVancouver Police officer Colton Price gets out of his patrol car during field training. The 24-year-old spent 51/2 years with the U.S. Army before getting hired with the Vancouver Police Department.

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photoCosts of hiring an officer to the Vancouver Police Department
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Vancouver Police Department hiring costs

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CCSO Deputy Costs

Hiring a new deputy doesn't come cheap for the Clark County Sheriff's Office. Here's a breakdown on all of the costs associated with recruiting and training a new hire.

photoPrice, left, learns from his field training officer, Sgt. Jim White, during a traffic stop in east Vancouver.

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photoEllen Kilmer pins his badge on her boyfriend, new Vancouver Police officer Carlos Urquiza, after he was sworn in July 25.

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photoVancouver Police officer Colton Price and his field training officer, Sgt. Jim White, collaborate while responding to calls during the swing shift in east Vancouver.

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On Colton Price’s first day as a full-time police officer, his field training sergeant tossed him the keys to the patrol car and told him to drive.

It was a surprise for the 24-year-old newbie at the Vancouver Police Department, who expected to ride shotgun for a day or two to gather his bearings. But Sgt. Jim White, who’s been training incoming officers for more than a decade, knew better.

“This isn’t a spectator sport,” White said. “You’re up to your eyeballs from Day One.”

Price is one of nine new hires at the Vancouver Police Department. Some, like him, come straight out of the police academy in Burien, while others hail from law enforcement agencies around the U.S. The agency hasn’t been fully staffed since 2002 due to Baby Boomer retirements, resignations and a couple of deaths. It has three more vacancies it plans to fill.

The process is long, uncomfortable and selective. In 2012, Vancouver hired four entry-level officers from a pool of 400 applicants, and three experienced officers among 248 applicants, according to Sgt. Deb Libbey.

Price, a Heritage High School graduate, “knew all along” he wanted to be a local police officer. The best man at his wedding was the son of Vancouver Police Officer Eddie Alba, who warned him that getting on the force wouldn’t be an easy or short process.

Price knew he couldn’t get hired straight out of high school; applicants must be at least 21 years old. So he joined the U.S. Army, and stayed for 5½ years. He applied to the Vancouver and Battle Ground police departments as early as he could as his military contract ended, hoping to minimize his potential period of unemployment. The hiring process, after all, takes anywhere from six to eight months. He and his wife planned financially and emotionally for what would happen — the lack of income and the time he would spend away at the academy.

Steps of recruiting

It starts with taking a written and physical ability test through Public Safety Testing, a testing agency for public safety employers in Washington, Alaska, California and Idaho. The physical measures the endurance and strength cops may need in an instant — while chasing a suspect, rescuing someone, remaining vigilant during a stakeout or in self defense.

Those who apply to work at the city agency are screened for what Libbey calls “automatic disqualifiers.” Candidates who have recently done drugs or have a slew of traffic violations on their record are cut from the pool, eliminating about 20 to 25 percent. An officer can’t very well enforce the law if they don’t follow it, she said.

As the supervisor of the department’s backgrounds investigation unit, Libbey performs thorough background investigations on candidates who score 70 or higher on the safety test. Then begins the “invasive and not very comfortable” in-depth interview, followed by a polygraph exam.

“They dig pretty deep,” Price said of the experience.

Steps of training

A panel decides whether to extend a conditional offer of employment. If it’s offered and accepted, the prospective police officer submits to a medical and psychological screening.

Then there’s 5½ months in the academy, after which they end up where Price is, in field training. As a trainee, Price works alongside White to learn … what, exactly?

“I would say, how to be a cop,” Price said with a laugh. “If you mess up, it counts.”

“It’s going from a video game to reality,” White added.

The reality is, Vancouver has its own policies and procedures he has to get used to, and the city itself has its quirks.

When Price incorrectly calls out his location on the radio, White corrects him and explains the directions of streets and avenues in the city. White said new officers get a lot of criticism and corrections in the first couple of days.

Toward the end of the first phase of field training, the pair wind up at Walmart — where Price has been more than a dozen times already — to interview a theft suspect. She allegedly stole a pair of shorts priced at $12.88.

Price asks her why she stole the shorts, then explains her court date and what can happen if she doesn’t show up. The interview differs from those he conducted in the Army, where he was an interrogator and trained spies in east Afghanistan. It’s a new skill that gets better only with practice and exposure.

Down the road, Price hopes to be a hostage negotiator or work on the Clark-Vancouver Regional Drug Task Force. For now, he’s still gaining all of the experiences it takes to be a police officer. He experiences different calls by rotating through the day, swing and graveyard shifts, and switches precincts to learn the city’s geography. He also rides with other training officers to get different perspectives and methods. Officers say it takes five years before they’ve seen everything, and 10 to 15 years before they’re really good at what they do.

It’s rare, but some officers find during field training that police work isn’t for them and they quit, White said. They could drop out or be eliminated at any point in the hiring process. Someone may, for instance, be extended an employment offer and then fail the psychological screening.

The $65,000 and more that it costs to train a new police officer doesn’t include the background investigation, interviews, testing or salaries of those in the Backgrounds Investigation Unit.

Candy Arata, human resources manager for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, takes those recruiting expenses into account, and estimates that the total cost for hiring a new deputy is more than $98,000. While both agencies pool resources and employees from various units to help with the hiring process, their practices of tallying the cost differ.

Risk of loss

After all the investment, some officers leave for another agency soon after they’re hired.

“You can’t force them to stay,” said Carrie Greene, Ridgefield police chief. “It occurs all the time around the state.”

Smaller agencies, like hers, are typical targets. Bigger agencies offer more pay, exposure, room for advancement and the opportunity to take part in specialty units. Greene spent 25 years with the Washington State Patrol, another agency that loses young recruits to agencies that offer more flexibility in terms of where they get to live and what they get to do.

When Greene attended the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs annual conference in May, there was talk about forming contracts. Agencies, she said, wouldn’t hire somebody if they knew that officer would only stay for a few months. The contract would require that officers stay with the agency for a certain period or pay back the cost of training.


Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; twitter.com/col_cops; patty.hastings@columbian.com.

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