Changes to Vancouver Police department eyed

4th shift would be added to cut overtime costs

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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photoEric Holmes
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Community task force review of VPD services

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Vancouver Police Department operations assessment

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Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes, who recently hired a new police chief, announced Tuesday proposed structural and operational changes to the Vancouver Police Department.

James McElvain from the Riverside County (Calif.) Sheriff's Office will start his $150,000-a-year job on Dec. 16.

Holmes said Tuesday 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.

The changes were endorsed by a community task force in a Nov. 7 report to Holmes.

Sgt. Jeff Kipp, president of the guild, and union representative Cmdr. Dave King were on a "technical resource team" of city employees that attended task force meetings, as was interim Chief Chris Sutter.

Sutter, recognizing the need for labor negotiations, said Tuesday he's optimistic the changes will be implemented to some degree.

"We continue to make strides to seek out efficiencies, and also opportunities to improve our labor-management relationships," Sutter said.

He said feedback from the task force was "extremely valuable."

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 an outside assessment of the department by the International City Manager's Association Center for Public Safety Management.

The ICMA analyzed how the department operates compared to national standards and best practices.

In March, the ICMA 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.

While the ICMA offered more than a dozen suggestions, Holmes said the task force focused on four that will directly impact service levels.

The department has 190 sworn officers and 22.5 full-time equivalent positions for civilian staff. It has a 2013 budget of $31.7 million from the city's general fund. That represents about a quarter of the general fund, Holmes said.

In addition to the proposed staffing changes, the task force signed off on revising the department's policy on responding to alarms and designating additional types of calls as ones where callers will be told to just file an online report instead of talking to an officer.

Holmes said the city council will have to approve the alarm policy. According to the task force's report, 90 percent of alarm calls turn out to be false, typically "user error." A revised policy would require the alarm company's monitoring center to make a minimum of two calls to registered owners before contacting 911 to ask for an officer.

This could reduce false alarms by approximately 75 percent (930 alarm responses a year), freeing an estimated 465 officer hours, according to the report.

Holmes said the council will discuss the idea to direct more people to file reports online and on the phone with a civilian employee.

"The council needs to review it because it is a change in the level of service," Holmes said, adding it doesn't necessarily mean a reduction in service, but that sparing officers from taking in-person reports on minor crimes frees them up to focus on more serious and potentially solvable crimes, as well as crime prevention. Sutter said 12 percent of call types, mostly cold calls about low-level property crimes with no good leads, could be handled without involving a sworn officer.

Holmes said he will wait for McElvain to start before he schedules a workshop with the city council, but said police department officials have already been studying call types to make potential changes to response protocol.