Cops stretched thin in county

Compared to nearly all jurisdictions of similar size, Vancouver, sheriff's office have fewer officers, deputies

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

Published:

 

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On a "quiet" Tuesday afternoon in east Vancouver, Sgt. Dave Henderson scanned the incoming calls for police service on the laptop in his black-and-white cop cruiser. With a few touches on the screen, he rejected several calls.

It was a tough decision to make based off the call notes sent to him by 911 dispatchers.

"That's a huge responsibility to say I'm not going to help you," he said.

What patrol officers read on the screen may differ from what they find at the site of the emergency, which makes deleting calls a gamble. There are just too many calls to go around, Henderson said, so supervisors such as himself have to cherry-pick what they respond to.

Compared with jurisdictions of similar size throughout the state, the Vancouver Police Department has the fewest number of sworn officers to serve its population -- 1.12 officers for every 1,000 residents. Clark County has the second-lowest rate of deputies among counties in Washington with similar populations.

While the line of work is inherently busy and haphazard, Henderson said cops have reached the point where "we just can't do it anymore."

About one-third of the time, Vancouver cops are too busy with another incident to come when someone calls 911, resulting in a dispatch

delay. Calls stack up in the queue until a unit is available to respond.

Calls for police service typically pick up around 6 a.m., as the day shift starts, and they never really drop off until midnight.

The first call on Henderson's shift put him at the VCA East Mill Plain Animal Hospital near Interstate 205, to check on a transient camp in the wooded area next to the hospital. He and another officer chatted with a homeless couple for a few minutes, let them stay in their camp and then drove to the next call. At a bus stop across from the Mill Plain Walmart, officers dealt with a drunken man who allegedly smashed a car window in the parking lot and jumped inside because he thought his girlfriend was in the car.

At the same time, another Vancouver officer arrested a man on a felony warrant near the Mill Plain exit ramp to I-205 northbound. He shouldn't have been alone, Henderson explained. Common practice says officers shouldn't respond by themselves to disturbances, felony arrests, crimes-in-progress or domestic violence calls where they may be in danger.

"Whenever you need cover, it's kind of tough," Cpl. Duane Boynton said as he helped officers in front of Walmart. With patrol officers responding to calls in every corner of the 48.6 square miles that make up the city, help may be too far away.

One of Henderson's officers responded to a trespass call in April at a convenience store where a man was lying on the floor, refusing to leave. The man started fighting the officer and tried to get into his patrol car. It took about six to seven minutes for help to arrive. During the struggle, the officer sprained his hand, leaving him off patrol for two months.

At any given time, about 10 to 16 patrol officers cover the city and eight to 14 deputies cover Clark County. While there's some overlap between shifts, officers typically take this time to finish up reports or turn in evidence. When someone is injured, on sick leave, vacationing or training, fewer officers patrol the streets.

"The stress is higher on dispatchers when there's not enough people in the field," said Katy Myers, operations division manager for Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency. Dispatchers take the brunt of anger from 911 callers when officers don't arrive quickly or don't arrive at all. People get anxious, Myers said, and will call 911 back, wondering when the police will show up.

It takes more time for a dispatcher to explain why an officer won't go to a call than to actually dispatch it, Myers said. Dispatchers often request that supervisors call reporting parties to take informational reports or to explain why they won't show up.

A stabbing at Starbucks, 11502 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., on March 11 drew all of the Vancouver officers who were on the east side of the city, along with three more from the west side. Henderson had officers at the hospital, at the scene and at the evidence unit. He also had 23 calls waiting for police response, requiring him to call in graveyard shift officers to help cover the call load. Unplanned overtime doubles an officer's hourly pay.

It can be hard to round up a willing group of overtime officers when they're needed. Sheriff deputies work 11.75-hour days, so Sgt. Chad Rothenberger, who oversees the west side of the county during the swing shift, understands that deputies appreciate time off. When Rothenberger needs more officers, he has to start calling people to come into work early or on their day off. He's even had to knock on doors and tell people they need to come to work.

"That, as a supervisor, to me … it's the worst thing," Rothenberger said.

Fast facts

• In a 2012 community survey, Vancouver residents identified the five most important city services as medical, fire, police, drinking water, and garbage and recycling. About 80 percent of respondents said they were not willing to see reductions in funding or service for crime investigations, patrol and police response.n There are 184 sworn, commissioned officers with the Vancouver Police Department and 135 with the Clark County Sheriff's Office.

• During the last budget period, 2011 to 2012, the city of Vancouver spent 28 percent of its budget on police services.

• Clark County has 0.65 sworn officers for every 1,000 residents in the county, the second-lowest rate in Washington after Thurston County to the north. Thurston, however, spends more overall on law and justice. About 73 percent of the general fund goes to law and justice departments including law enforcement, emergency medical services, the medical examiner and the courts system. Clark County spends about 61 percent on law and justice, according to the sheriff's office.

• In the county, deputies average 23 minutes of free time between emergency calls. There's less time for officers working the day or swing shift and more time for graveyard officers.

• The most calls come in at 4 p.m. and the fewest at 4 a.m., according to the Clark County Sheriff's Office.

• In 2012, Vancouver officers responded to an average of 168 calls per day, while the sheriff's office averages 120.

• For the most part, the Vancouver department meets the "Rule of 60," which states that no more than 60 percent of an officer's time should be spent responding to calls, according to a departmental analysis. The remaining 40 percent is spent on proactive policing, following up on cases and traffic enforcement.

• An analysis finds that K-9 units and supervisors take on patrol assignments. Without them, Vancouver police argues, officers would be buried with calls.

• In 2012, about 25 percent of city calls were traffic-related, 25 percent were investigations, 18 percent were crime-related and another 18 percent were suspicious incidents, according to the analysis.

• On any given day, there's a 50 percent chance there are enough sheriff's deputies to handle the calls that come in.

• Through mutual aid agreements, neighboring officers in La Center, Battle Ground, Camas, Washougal and Ridgefield police outside of their jurisdictions when needed.

• Dispatchers send the closest available unit to high-priority emergencies, regardless of which agency they represent. These calls have to be dispatched to an officer within five minutes.

• Even if you think a police officer won't show up or won't make a difference after a crime has occurred, police say to still call 911. Those incidences can be incorporated into crime analysis and used to prioritize patrol efforts. Data Driven Approach to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS for short) directs deputies to increase patrols in areas with high crime densities. The new approach shifts the goal from making arrests to preventing crime.

SOURCES: The Clark County Sheriff's Office, the Vancouver Police Department, the City of Vancouver, the International City/County Management Association Center for Public Safety, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency