Councilors pleased with VPD chief’s work

City manager tells them of positive changes on force

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After eight months on the job, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain has the department headed in the right direction, city councilors agreed Monday after hearing an update on structural and operational changes.

City Manager Eric Holmes, who hired McElvain with some of the changes in mind, said he’s pleased McElvain has been engaging with the officers and the community. An outside assessment of the department completed before McElvain was hired found it lacking “direction and focus,” and Holmes said McElvain “is listening in a way that’s new to the culture (of the department) … but there’s no question as to who’s chief.”

For example, the department will add a fourth shift. An analysis found that could save approximately $300,000 a year in overtime costs, but officers have been apprehensive about the change. McElvain said instead of implementing the fourth shift this year, he agreed to wait until January so officers wouldn’t worry about disrupting planned vacations and family schedules mid-year.

That’s a good example of how McElvain makes changes without making it unnecessarily tumultuous, Holmes said.

McElvain started his presentation by saying “there are good people with great intentions” working at the department, but old wounds are slow to heal.

He has the sympathy of the council. As Councilor Jack Burkman said, “You are in a really tough position, and you know that.”

McElvain replaced Cliff Cook, who resigned after what was described as a mutual agreement between Cook and Holmes that the department needed fresh leadership.

Cook’s five years was the longest tenure of any chief since Rod Frederiksen, who served five years and four months from 1991 till 1996, and included a no-confidence vote against him by his rank-and-file in 2010. At the time of the vote, Cook was supported by then-City Manager Pat McDonnell.

“There is a culture that desires, yet resists, change,” McElvain said.

McElvain, who was hired following a national search, previously worked as a captain with the Riverside (Calif.) County Sheriff’s Department. His coverage area of three cities had a total population of 213,000 — larger than the population of Vancouver — and he was considered chief of those cities.

He started in Vancouver in December, and was immediately confronted with a list of recommendations from a community task force.

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 2013, 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.

One change McElvain made was swapping higher-paid commander and lower-paid sergeant positions for seven mid-level lieutenant positions. Dropping from eight to four commanders and bringing back the lieutenant position creates a clearer chain of command, McElvain said. He wants the department to improve how it tracks crime trends, and assign officers accordingly.

“We don’t want our officers to be busy,” he said. “We want them to be productive.”

McElvain isn’t just following orders from the task force, however. One idea was to direct callers with low-level incidents to fill out an online report instead of talking to an officer, but “not everyone has access to a computer,” McElvain told the council.

He said crimes are already underreported, and he doesn’t want to alienate people by telling them to fill out an online report. Online reports may be useful, but generally he wants an officer to speak with a person, even if those lower-level calls get a longer response time.

The more crimes are reported, the better information the city has to use a data-driven approach to staffing and make sure officers are where they can be the most effective at preventing crime, McElvain said.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said he appreciated that McElvain was taking a “measure twice and cut once” approach to making changes.

“It’s not easy, and you’re not going to keep everyone happy, but with time you’ll get most people on board,” Leavitt said.

The department has 190 sworn officers (188 positions are currently filled) and 22.5 full-time equivalent positions for civilian staff. It has an annual budget of approximately $32 million, which represents about one-quarter of the city’s general fund.