Vancouver hires new police chief

James McElvain has degree in race, class inequality, knows how to build partnerships, city says

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

Updated: November 1, 2013, 3:50 PM

 
photoJames McElvain was hired by Vancouver as the city's new police chief. His first day is Dec. 16.

James McElvain will soon take over as Vancouver’s next police chief, city officials announced Friday.

McElvain, 49, has 28 years of law enforcement experience and has spent the last 17 years in California’s Riverside County. There, he served in the sheriff’s department and as a police chief for three cities with a combined population larger than Vancouver. He’s a captain at the Ben Clark Training Center, which trains new law enforcement officers, correctional officers, and provides advanced training for seasoned members of the force.

His first day on the job in Vancouver is Dec. 16, and he’ll earn an annual salary of $150,000. Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes named him as the top finalist early last month, but McElvain still needed to undergo a psychological exam and take a polygraph.

Holmes traveled to California recently to check into McElvain’s background, and he said McElvain has a reputation of bringing divergent interests together. He also said McElvain has experience working with various jurisdictions, diverse populations and community groups.

The salary McElvain will receive is higher than the city’s previous salary maximum of $143,000 for the police chief position. Holmes said that salary was out of date, and that McElvain is earning more than $150,000 at his job in California.

“As we come out of the recession, we’ve been looking at all of our salary numbers to see where we are relative to the market,” Holmes said, adding that salary increases help attract talented job candidates to Vancouver.

McElvain has a Ph.D. in sociology, a master’s degree in criminal justice and a bachelor’s degree in social science and criminal justice. His doctoral studies examined race and class inequality. He said his education in sociology has helped him view his law enforcement role as more than just investigating crimes and arresting perpetrators. Crime prevention policies can go a long way for a community, he said.

“I’m looking at the human factor. It’s not just an us-versus-them,” McElvain said by phone on Friday, adding that law enforcement can work with schools, community leaders, clergy members and businesses to prevent crime. “We’re all one big society trying to work together.”

McElvain said Vancouver Police are “doing a good job in the community,” and his first priority will be to act as a unifier within the department. Holmes said Friday that unification is “one of the things the department is in need of.”

McElvain is married and has three adult children. He said he decided to leave his job in California because he wants to be a police chief, and because he and his wife both have family in Washington state. McElvain’s father lives in Kirkland.

He was chosen from a pool of about 60 applicants after the city conducted a nationwide search. He will replace Interim Police Chief Chris Sutter, who also was a finalist for the job.

Sutter became interim chief after Cliff Cook resigned last year. Cook said he and Holmes agreed that the department needed what they termed as “fresh leadership.”

Cook, who was hired from Fort Worth, Texas, had to make unpopular cuts as part of citywide reductions, and long-running tensions between officers and command staff was not defused during his tenure. Cook was described as an isolating figure who didn’t take the time to get to know his staff. He was more popular outside the department, particularly among civilian volunteers from the Neighbors on Watch program. He was the subject of a no-confidence vote by the police guild in 2010. He now heads the Bellingham Police Department.

Cook’s five years as police chief were the longest tenure of any chief since Rod Frederiksen, who served five years and four months from 1991 to 1996.

McElvain said he hopes to remain Vancouver’s police chief until his retirement.

“I’m not looking at Vancouver as a stepping stone to something else,” McElvain said. “My wife and I look forward to embracing the community.”