City, county balance need for police officers with fiscal realities

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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While crafting the 2013-2014 budget, the city of Vancouver was faced with a $1.8 million shortfall. On the chopping block were 13 grant-funded firefighters and five police officers, said City Councilor Bart Hansen. Through some reshuffling and outside funding, the positions were kept.

The Evergreen and Vancouver school districts hired the police to be school resource officers while Fire District 5 helped pay for the firefighters.

Although Hansen thinks the city will get more revenue as the economy improves, he worries about how to continue paying for cops, considering the increasing costs of benefits. He looks to the Vancouver Police Officers' Guild for a potential solution.

He would like to hire more neighborhood police officers, such as Cpl. Duane Boynton, who address neighborhood issues and connect residents with the police department.

Mary Elkin, a resident in east Vancouver's Image neighborhood, believes additional NPOs could help manage the area's lower-level crimes, such as theft and vandalism, and make residents more aware of crime trends.

About a mile of Northeast 49th Street in Image was tagged with graffiti, including a fence belonging to an elderly couple that read "(expletive) VPD." No officers were able to respond, Elkin said. Volunteers rented a pressure washer and cleaned off the graffiti.

"At the end of the day, you need bodies," Elkin said. "If you leave enough of the lower-level stuff off, people lose confidence in their police force and where their tax money is going."

Each NPO polices 10 to 20 neighborhoods. Putting more people into these positions would ease the load and put more of a face on the department, Hansen said.

During a ride-along, Boynton and Hansen drove to an apartment, based on a tip that a known gang member had moved in. A young woman answered the door and said he wasn't available. Boynton left his business card.

What was the point of that? Hansen wondered as they left. They didn't make any contact with the man.

With a smile, Boynton said, "'He knows that I know he moved into town.'"

Hansen is curious how the City Council candidates in the upcoming election will propose paying for public safety and preventing cuts; public safety alone makes up about more than one-quarter of the general fund. The operating budget for the police department is about $32.6 million a year.

To Hansen, it's obvious that the Vancouver Police Department could use additional patrol staff and support positions. It's a matter of finding a way to pay for it.

In 2009 and 2010, the sheriff's office lost 41 positions across all levels and departments of the organization due to budget cuts, Sheriff Garry Lucas said. Twenty deputies, 12 jail positions, seven support positions, one assistant chief and one professional services chief were all eliminated.

When it thought about cutting the outreach sergeant position, held by Sgt. Shane Gardner, Northeast Hazel Dell residents Doug Ballou and Bud Van Cleve fought against the proposal. Cops interacting with the community is one of the best resources the neighborhood has, they argued.

"One thing that's unique about the sheriff's office is that they're very accessible to the public," Van Cleve said. "They come to us." Van Cleve is president of the Northeast Hazel Dell Neighborhood Association.

Northeast Hazel Dell has the highest crime rate of any neighborhood in the county and the largest number of crimes. It's an urban area, with lots of commercial buildings -- some that are vacant and attract transients -- and lots of large, rental communities that make it a hive for criminal activity.

"I think we take them for granted," Ballou said of the area's patrol officers.