The raw numbers tell the story: Of 183 sworn officers in the Vancouver Police Department, 80 of them will be eligible to retire within the next five years. That represents 44 percent of a police force that already ranks among the most poorly staffed municipal forces in the state — and it presents a burgeoning problem.
Not that the trend comes as a surprise or is unique to Vancouver. As detailed in a recent Columbian article by reporter Patty Hastings, many police departments are facing vast changes as baby boomers reach retirement age. Through the state's law enforcement system, officers can retire at the age of 53 after at least 20 years of service; for each year of service, they then earn 2 percent of their final salary.
In the long run, the state should consider increasing the retirement age for officers. Police work is physically demanding and mentally challenging, but with improved health care and fitness among today's population, officers should be expected to stay on the job beyond the age of 53. To coin a phrase, 53 is the new 43.
The difficulty would be that 20 years on the job has become the standard for retirement eligibility among many public professions throughout the country. Unilaterally altering the retirement age would hamper the Vancouver Police Department's ability to hire and retain officers, and that means change in this area will arrive at a glacial pace. Still, it is a change that must be considered.
For now, however, Vancouver is facing a shortage of officers that threatens to exacerbate a long-running problem. The VPD has not had a full allotment of officers since 2002, and this year it lists eight vacancies. According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, in 2013 Vancouver had 1.13 sworn officers per 1,000 population. Among similar sized cities, the rate of officers per 1,000 residents were: Everett, 1.76; Tacoma, 1.67; Yakima 1.52; and Bellevue, 1.29. For Vancouver, the low numbers are compounded by the fact that the Clark County Sheriff's Office has the second-lowest rate of officers among all counties in Washington.
Not that the level of staffing should be determined solely by population. Each city and each county has varying law enforcement needs that are dictated by the area's culture, crime rate and the priorities of the populace. But given its current situation, Vancouver wisely is taking a proactive approach under Chief James McElvain, who took over in mid-December. A total of 19 Vancouver officers already are eligible for retirement, and the department is looking to hire 10 new officers by the end of the summer. McElvain is pushing to find recruits who are new to police work, hoping for longevity and seizing the opportunity to mold them within his vision for the department. "We really need to get those 10 now," McElvain said.
That's because the process is time-consuming, as new hires must attend a 22-week law enforcement academy based in Burien within six months of being hired. Because many law enforcement agencies throughout the state are facing similar retirement-driven shortfalls, there is competition to get employees into the academy. "We have added a substantial number of new classes for next year to keep the wait time down," said Greg Baxter of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
Whether or not the retirement age eventually is altered, police agencies throughout the state will be facing shortages of officers, and Vancouver is no different. Ideally, the situation will be managed well enough that public safety does not suffer.