UPDATE: Report finds VPD is understaffed and lacks focus

City commissioned study to guide hiring of a new police chief

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

Updated: March 27, 2013, 7:57 PM

 
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Vancouver Police Department operations assessment

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The Vancouver Police Department is an understaffed and “deeply divided organization” that needs to move beyond “small town” policing toward a priority-based use of its limited resources, according to a blistering external report released Wednesday.

The 156-page comprehensive assessment of the department’s operations by the International City Management Association Center for Public Safety Management found that the department provides “a high level of service” with limited resources. However, a series of personnel and budget reductions and chronic changes in leadership over several years have caused the department to lose direction and focus.

“A succession of administrations, each with a different policing philosophy, has contributed to a palpable sense of disorientation with respect to the vision and mission of the department,” the report concludes. “Years of internal turmoil have had a negative effect on the workplace climate.”

The report included strengths and weaknesses of the department and list of 16 recommendations.

The city commissioned the more than $130,000 study to help guide its hiring of a new police chief, said City Manager Eric Holmes.

The new chief will replace Chief Cliff Cook, who resigned in August, leading a force of 189 sworn officers and 21 civilian staff members and overseeing a biennial budget of $63 million. Assistant Chief Chris Sutter has served as interim chief since then and is one of about 30 applicants seeking the permanent chief’s position. Interviews are scheduled for May 15 and 16.

The police department has had 10 chiefs in the past 20 years, including four interim chiefs. The average for a department of Vancouver’s size is one chief every five years, Holmes said.

Using the study to identify the department’s needs before hiring the next chief allows the city to choose the best fit for meeting those needs, Holmes said.

“This report represents a road map of opportunity for the next chief of police to lead the department to a period of increased effectiveness and stability,” he said.

The ICMA report indicates “divisiveness and lack of trust” permeate the department and addressing that problem should be a priority.

For instance, the relationship between leadership and the Vancouver Police Officers Guild is “acrimonious.” Employees, according to a survey by ICMA, focus groups and interviews, perceive a lack of fairness in disciplinary actions, promotions and training opportunities.

There is a scheduling and communication divide between commanders, who work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and patrol officers, who may work in the middle of the night.

“From a police perspective, (leadership) cannot be done from behind a desk working Monday to Friday during regular business hours, while writing and distributing memos,” the report stated.

“The chief must heal the scars that divide the department and interfere with operational effectiveness,” the report concludes. Only then, can the department begin the process of repairing the organizational culture and establish a culture of excellence instead of a culture of distrust.”

ICMA said another urgent matter is to provide a protocol for screening and triaging incoming and dispatched 911 calls. Currently, officers respond to all calls, regardless of how trivial, and dispatchers aren’t authorized to screen calls.

For instance, an officer was once dispatched to a home after a woman called to complain that her boyfriend would not pick up his clothes from the floor.

About 15 percent of the department’s calls are related to non-injury traffic accidents, burglar alarms and non-emergency complaints. While the department does have a Web-based system for reporting non-emergencies, ICMA recommended adding a phone line to allow civilian employees to question callers on specifics of their complaints, saving officers’ time.

ICMA also recommended adding up to 10 officers to the force and restoring the rank of lieutenant, a casualty of recession budget cuts.

While the report provided plenty of criticism, Holmes said it also pointed out strengths, including fighting crime, handling its finances, effective responses to calls, well-kept buildings and community-building activities with the public to fight neighborhood crime.

“It’s done phenomenal work given its resources,” he said.

The conclusions were based on data collection, interviews with staff, focus groups, observations of the work environment, data analysis and comparative analyses, according to the report’s executive summary.

In the next month, the city administration also will hold a series of meetings with police personnel to hear feedback, questions and suggestions on the report’s findings, Holmes said. He said he’s committed to holding off on making decisions about department changes until after that monthlong period.

To view the entire report, see www.columbian.com/documents.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.