Long understaffed, Vancouver police working to replace retiring officers

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter



Looking for a few good recruits

Long understaffed, Vancouver Police Department works to replace retiring officers

Did you know?

Half of the sworn officers at the Vancouver Police Department are older than 45.

Through the state’s law enforcement officer retirement system, police can retire with a monthly benefit at age 53 after at least 20 years’ service.

For every year of service, they earn 2 percent of their final average salary, which is divided into monthly allotments.

Vancouver police officer turnover

2014: Four officers retire, two resign, one dies, one fails routine probationary period.

2013: Two officers retire, six resign.

2012: Five officers retire, four resign.

2011: Three officers retire, one resigns, one dies.

2010: Eight officers retire, seven resign, one dies.

Source: City of Vancouver

photoClick to enlarge
photoClick to enlarge

Law enforcement staffing by agency

Vancouver Police Department

• 183 sworn officers.

• 19 eligible to retire.

80 eligible to retire in 5 years.

Clark County Sheriff's Office

• 131 sworn officers.

• 19 eligible to retire.

36 eligible to retire in 5 years.

Camas Police Department

• 26 sworn officers.

• One eligible to retire.

Five eligible to retire in 5 years.

Battle Ground Police Department

• 23 sworn officers.

• One eligible to retire.

• Two eligible to retire in 5 years.

Washougal Police Department

• 17 sworn officers.

• Three eligible to retire.

Four eligible to retire in 5 years.

La Center Police Department

Eight sworn officers, one part time, one reserve.

• One eligible to retire.

One eligible to retire in 5 years.

Ridgefield Police Department

• Eight sworn officers.

• None eligible to retire.

Two eligible to retire in 5 years.

Next time you pull up to a patrol car at a stoplight, glance at the police officer behind the wheel. How old does the officer look? Maybe 43? That's the average age of officers at the Vancouver Police Department, but that might not be the case for long.

The Vancouver Police Department is among law enforcement agencies around the country that are starting to experience an exodus of baby boomers. Right now, 19 Vancouver officers are eligible to retire without financial penalty through the state's retirement plan for law enforcement officers. In five years, nearly half of the current force will be ready to retire.

Since police Chief James McElvain was sworn in in mid-December, more people have left the agency than have been hired.

Replacing officers, either with young recruits or those with years of experience, is a constant game of catch-up; the Vancouver Police Department hasn't been fully-staffed since 2002. While the agency is budgeted to have 190 officers, there are currently 183.

In an attempt to get ahead of the curve, Sgt. Dave Henderson aims to hire 10 officers by the end of the summer — a deadline that the police chief says isn't soon enough.

"We really need to get those 10 now," McElvain said. The number of budgeted officers is based on need, he said, meaning Vancouver has been operating below its needs for more than a decade. McElvain is looking to fill specialized positions in the traffic unit and add property crime detectives.

New faces, department

In a lot of ways, the agency feels as though it's starting fresh, possibly leaving behind a tumultuous period of chief turnover, budget problems and tension among the ranks. Under the leadership of McElvain, who's been chief for seven months, the department looks to move on from its past and build a police force for the future.

The goal, McElvain said, is an agency that proactively addresses crime. That means defining a community problem, tracking it and figuring out strategies to eliminate the problem.

"You think this would be what we were doing all along, but it's not," he said.

There's a push to get recruits who are new to police work. McElvain said the return on investment is greater for inexperienced hires because the department can get up to 30 years of service from them, and department leaders can train them the way they want to. A majority of new hires have college degrees, though it's not required.

The competition to get new hires into the 22-week law enforcement academy is tough as agencies around the state look to bolster their forces. By law, new hires have to get into the academy within six months of hire. Greg Baxter, human resources manager for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, said classes at the academy in Burien are filling up "dramatically faster" than in past years. Each class has 30 to 33 slots, with several others on a waiting list.

The training commission issues waivers for those who can't enroll within six months, and it expects to issue more than usual toward the end of this year, Baxter said. "We have added a substantial number of new classes for next year to keep the wait time down," he added.

'Learning curve'

When Katie Endresen was at the Burien academy, she was the only Vancouver police recruit in her class. The 23-year-old grew up in a law enforcement family and has lived in Vancouver most of her life. She's wanted to be a police officer since she could walk and talk.

After graduating from Fort Vancouver High School, she studied criminal justice at the University of Portland on an ROTC scholarship. While earning her degree, she interned with the Portland Police Bureau's Special Emergency Response Team. Now, she's back in her hometown, fresh out of the academy and training in the field with a seasoned officer. "There's a learning curve for sure," she said.

Gunnar Skollingsberg, 24, was hired at the end of April by the Vancouver Police Department. He moved to Vancouver after getting an associate degree in criminal justice at Boise State University in Idaho. He used to do private security at Hewlett-Packard in east Vancouver, where he often worked with police officers to follow up on cases.

"I like that every day could be something different," he said, of joining the agency.

Although new recruits like him are counted toward the number of officers, they can't patrol the city on their own until they've gone through the academy and finished field training. New officers who don't work out during the first-year probation period are let go; one was cut from the roster this year.

Looking back

Retiring police Sgt. Craig Landwehr jokingly told Endresen that he has T-shirts older than her. The 57-year-old plans to retire in January after 30 years with the Vancouver Police Department. Before that, he spent five years with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office and the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, both in Oregon.

Things have changed since he became a cop. For one, when he got hired in Jackson County, they put him into patrol work right away for about eight months before sending him to the academy. Although he had a seasoned officer at his side in the beginning, he spent a lot of time figuring things out. He recalls capturing fleeing subjects after a foot chase and then drawing a blank on what, if anything, they should be arrested for.

He never made a huge mistake, he said, thanks in part to his deep desire to learn all he could about police work.

"In the beginning, I didn't care how much I got paid, I just wanted to do the job," he said.

Unlike most people his age, Landwehr earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice before pursuing his law enforcement career. His dad, a logger, and his mom, a nurse, were adamant that he go to college.

Back in 1984, there were only about 60 officers at the Vancouver Police Department and everyone worked out of one building downtown. Even with just four officers on patrol at a given time, they weren't as busy. The coverage area was smaller and schedules overlapped, so you got to know everyone, Landwehr said.

Now that he works internal affairs in the administrative building on Evergreen Boulevard, he said it's harder to recognize some of the newer officers. "There's very few people that I got hired with that are still here," he said.

During his career, Landwehr worked patrol, was part of the local and federal drug task force and was a field training officer before he shifted to internal affairs. He said police are looked at more stringently now when it comes to use of force and intrusiveness. There's more lawsuits targeting police officers. In most cases, though, officers have themselves to blame, Landwehr said. "There's just more accountability for your actions."

Landwehr doesn't have any predictions for how the agency will fare in the coming years. During his tenure, there were 11 or 12 different chiefs, all with varying visions on what the department should look like.

"I don't know what will happen," he said. "Only time will tell."