New chief on the beat in Vancouver

James McElvain faces challenges as he takes Vancouver PD reins

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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One knock against the previous chief was he was isolated from the rank-and-file and didn't learn officers' names.

Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain said Monday, the start of his second week on the job, he plans on having photographs of officers to help memorize names and a magnetic board in his office showing an organizational chart with command staff and what they do.

Most important, he plans on "getting out of this position right here," he said during an interview in his office at police headquarters near Officers Row.

During his first week, he made trips to the department's east and west precincts, met police chiefs from the county's smaller cities, as well as Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas, mingled with community groups and participated in two "Shop With a Cop" holiday outings.

His first goal, he joked, was to survive his second week.

McElvain, 49, was hired by Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes to replace Cliff Cook, who resigned last year.

Cook said he and Holmes reached a mutual agreement that fresh leadership was needed at the department, which has 186 officers and will add two more officers by years' end.

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.

McElvain knows that potentially unpopular changes could be on his agenda, too, and said Monday he first needs to get a better understanding of why the depart

ment operates as it does and what efficiencies can be made.

Comes from large agency

McElvain has 28 years of law enforcement experience, but said the thought of becoming a police chief first occurred six years ago. He was a captain with the Riverside (Calif.) County Sheriff's Department. His coverage area of three cities had a total population of 213,000 — larger than the population of Vancouver — and he was considered chief of those cities.

Riverside County ranks among the top 50 largest agencies nationwide, with approximately 2,400 sworn officers. The county has a population of 2.2 million,

That role in Riverside brought him closer to the community and local elected officials, and he was given the latitude to run his command as he saw fit.

He liked making the day-to-day operational decisions. Unlike Vancouver, where officers have set days on/days off schedules, McElvain had flexibility to deploy officers at higher or lower levels depending on the day and time of day, relying on crime data to predict need.

A former Vancouver sergeant went to work in Riverside County, and told McElvain that Vancouver could use a leader like him with his data-driven approach to staffing. At the time, McElvain didn't even know precisely where Vancouver was. Two years ago, he was assigned to Riverside's Ben Clark Training Center for law enforcement and correctional officers. When he saw Vancouver had an opening, he recalled the sergeant's suggestion and decided to apply.

McElvain, who was one of 60 applicants in a nationwide search, has a Ph.D. in sociology, a master's degree in criminal justice and a bachelor's degree in social science and criminal justice.

He's earning $150,000 a year.

The father of three adult children, he's currently living in a studio apartment within city limits — a requirement of the job that cost the city Cook's predecessor, who wanted to live in Portland — while his wife waits for their home to sell in California.

He was sworn in the first day of work but will have a public swearing-in ceremony at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Water Resources Education Center, 4600 S.E. Columbia Way.

Challenges ahead

When Holmes announced McElvain's hire on Nov. 1, he said he learned through interviews with McElvain's colleagues that he has a reputation for bringing divergent interests together.

That will be a key attribute when he tackles recommendations made in an analysis of the department by the International City/County Management Association's (ICMA) Center for Public Safety Management.

Holmes has said he's looking forward to working with McElvain to implement the changes, which include adding a fourth shift to cut overtime costs and swapping three higher-paid commander positions and three lower-paid sergeant positions in for six mid-level lieutenant positions.

Those changes, which need to be negotiated with the Vancouver Police Officers Guild and command union, respectively, would save approximately $300,000 a year, the bulk coming from reducing overtime by having additional officers on duty during peak call hours, Holmes said.

The changes were endorsed by a community task force in a Nov. 7 report to Holmes. The 17-member task force, which included officials from Vancouver Public Schools, Evergreen Public Schools and Clark College, as well as business and neighborhood leaders, culled the ideas from the ICMA report.

The ICMA analyzed how the department operates compared to national standards and best practices. In March, it issued a comprehensive report that said the department provides a high level of service given its resources, but described the department as understaffed and lacking "direction and focus."

Budget and staffing cuts, plus a series of chiefs with different policing philosophies, "has contributed to a palpable sense of disorientation with respect to the vision and mission of the department. Years of internal turmoil have had a negative effect on the workplace climate," the ICMA report concluded.

McElvain said Monday that before he embarks on implementing changes, he wants to get a better idea of officers' workloads.

"Are we efficiently using the resources we have today?" he asked. In Vancouver, there are more officers and fewer calls than he had in Riverside, he added. He was also surprised to learn that in Clark County, people are told to call 911 no matter how minor the situation.

"That blew my mind," he said. "You typically have a non-emergency line."

As was recommended in the ICMA report, he wants to develop a system to triage calls more effectively and look at crime statistics to see if there are areas officers should target to try and reduce crime. He questions the decisions to close the east precinct to the public as part of budget cuts and emphasize filing police reports online. He said he would like to have officers going out on all calls even if it takes awhile for the officer to respond.

"Not all calls are emergencies," he said, recalling a time he went out on a vandalism report to find a woman insisting her rose bushes had been tampered with because of the petals on the ground.

Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who was elected to the city council in November and takes office in January, expressed a desire to reopen the east precinct to the public when she campaigned.

She said Monday she hasn't had a chance to meet McElvain, but heard he's already met with members of the Neighbors on Watch program and "gave them a good speech" about the importance of their work.

"That made them feel wonderful," she said.

She said she knows people find it unsettling to file a report online. When a victim discovers a burglar has broken into their home, for example, she understands the desire to talk to an officer.

"You want people to acknowledge that there was a crime and they'll do what they can to help get your things back," she said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be a detective or a sergeant." Maybe civilian NOW volunteers could staff the front desk at the east precinct, she said.

McElvain knows there's a lot of work to be done, but praised officers for what he's seen.

"Despite being here for such a short period of time, watching the officers interact with the community, I think they are A-plus. I was very impressed with the ease in which they are able to communicate with the citizens here," he said.