Saturday, May 15, 2021
May 15, 2021

Linkedin Pinterest

Vancouver police strive for diversity, not for animosity

Agency relies on advisory team, recruiting to keep lines of communication open, attract minorities to force

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published:
10 Photos
Sgt. Dave Henderson speaks with Frankie Cordova about job opportunities at Vancouver Police Department at a recent Hispanic Job Fair in Portland.
Sgt. Dave Henderson speaks with Frankie Cordova about job opportunities at Vancouver Police Department at a recent Hispanic Job Fair in Portland. Henderson is in charge of the agency's recruiting and hiring and is trying to get more minorities to apply. Photo Gallery

The amount of force police use has come under scrutiny in the past year since the deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and policy recommendations have followed.

President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing task force suggests not only demilitarizing police agencies, but also a broader change in police training and culture. The task force put an emphasis on de-escalation training.

Recognizing the shift, Vancouver Police Department Chief James McElvain is gearing up to have all of his agency’s sworn officers undergo de-escalation training in the fall.

“We’re teaching officers to recognize that not every situation requires you to stand your ground and move forward,” McElvain said. “It may be better that you retreat, strategize and use better tactics and communication.”

While de-escalation has always been a component of law enforcement training, the national dialogue is putting a new emphasis on the skill. More tenured officers, McElvain said, have learned how to talk someone into custody.

The amount of force police use has come under scrutiny in the past year since the deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and policy recommendations have followed.

President Barack Obama's 21st Century Policing task force suggests not only demilitarizing police agencies, but also a broader change in police training and culture. The task force put an emphasis on de-escalation training.

Recognizing the shift, Vancouver Police Department Chief James McElvain is gearing up to have all of his agency's sworn officers undergo de-escalation training in the fall.

"We're teaching officers to recognize that not every situation requires you to stand your ground and move forward," McElvain said. "It may be better that you retreat, strategize and use better tactics and communication."

While de-escalation has always been a component of law enforcement training, the national dialogue is putting a new emphasis on the skill. More tenured officers, McElvain said, have learned how to talk someone into custody.

"You can use your verbal skills. Maybe someone hasn't heard the right thing yet to get them to cooperate," he said.

Vancouver police also are planning to take part in a leadership workshop early next year called Blue Courage, which teaches skills such as stress management, igniting cultural changes and fighting cynicism.

"Occasionally we need to act as warriors to combat violence, but we're primarily there as a service role to the community," Lt. Scott Creager said. All incoming police officers in Washington now undergo Blue Courage training at their police academy, he added.

-- Emily Gillespie

“You can use your verbal skills. Maybe someone hasn’t heard the right thing yet to get them to cooperate,” he said.

Vancouver police also are planning to take part in a leadership workshop early next year called Blue Courage, which teaches skills such as stress management, igniting cultural changes and fighting cynicism.

“Occasionally we need to act as warriors to combat violence, but we’re primarily there as a service role to the community,” Lt. Scott Creager said. All incoming police officers in Washington now undergo Blue Courage training at their police academy, he added.

— Emily Gillespie

Vancouver Police Lt. Scott Creager has spent many evenings this year watching news reports of police shooting people of color, citizens killing lawmen and citywide riots.

He said that something similar could just as easily happen in Vancouver. He knows how quickly a police interaction can spiral out of control.

“It’s very important in these contacts with the community that we do it right because there’s so much credibility on the line for our agency if we don’t,” he said. “It just takes one very bad incident or one very bad decision to undermine a lot of good effort over a long time.”

It’s been a year since police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, Mo. The incident re-ignited a national conversation about race and police.

In Vancouver, minority groups say there are areas for improvement for police, including implementing the use of body cameras on officers, and increasing the number of minority officers and officers who speak languages other than English. The Vancouver Police Department agrees there’s more work to be done to change the makeup of the police force; 86 percent of the agency’s officers are white while Vancouver’s population is about 75 percent white.

At the same time, the Vancouver Police Department is being praised as ahead of the curve. For years, officers and minority groups have held regular meetings on the Chief’s Diversity Advisory Team, and the team recently was highlighted as a model for successful policing.

Changes needed

The national conversation about race and police hit closer to home in February when officers in Pasco shot and killed a 35-year-old Hispanic man, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who had his hands up. The shooting was captured on a bystander’s cellphone video and uploaded to YouTube, where it has been viewed 2 million times.

Marva Edwards, president of the Vancouver chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that leaving the documenting to citizens during officer-involved shootings isn’t enough.

Since April, Edwards said she has fielded about nine complaints by NAACP members who say they’ve experienced racism by Vancouver police. For example, she said, when an African-American reports a crime, they sometimes garner immediate suspicion when police arrive even though they did nothing wrong. She said she plans to follow up on these concerns with Vancouver police.

Making every police officer wear a body camera, Edwards said, could lead to positive changes.

“That way, the public can see what’s going on from the policeman’s perspective,” she said. “We would be able to determine more positively and correctly what happened — that’s the main thing. It doesn’t leave it to our memory.”

Sixteen states passed body camera measures so far this year, according to the Associated Press. There’s an effort underway in Washington to send a measure to voters next year that would require all uniformed police in the state to wear body cameras.

Vancouver police Chief James McElvain said that before the technology becomes a part of Vancouver police work, the agency would need to figure out how to pay for it and how public disclosure laws would apply to body camera footage. The department would need to reach an agreement with the police union, too.

“There are a lot of reasons to have them: it develops better credibility within the community, it makes some things less challengeable later,” McElvain said. “So far, the research has been positive on police having (body cameras). Complaints have gone down.”

McElvain said he couldn’t comment on the recent complaints of racism made to the NAACP about Vancouver police, because he had yet to review them.

Afraid to call 911

The Latino community in Vancouver has additional concerns: language barriers and a general fear of police.

When Beatriz Velasquez moved to the Pacific Northwest six years ago from Colombia, she had several negative interactions with law enforcement. At the time, she lived in a rural house in Skamania County and was in an abusive marriage. When she needed help, she called police, but the officers who arrived didn’t speak Spanish.

“I remember the last time I called police. I was crying, I told him, ‘He’s going to kill me.’ The officer said, ‘do you know how many people want to live here in this nice house with this nice car?’ He said, ‘listen, just go make love to your husband. Everything is going to be OK.’ I was terrified.”

Velasquez has since gotten out of the relationship and moved to Vancouver. As a bilingual advocacy specialist with YWCA Clark County, she works to help women who are in the situation she was in six years ago.

“In my community, I can say 70 percent are afraid to make a (911) call,” she said. They worry about what will happen when an officer shows up, she said.

Add in the confusion of a language barrier and the situation has the potential to go awry.

Almost one in five people in Vancouver speak a language other than English, and of those, only half say they speak English very well, according to U.S. Census data.

The Vancouver Police Department has at least eight officers who speak Spanish, two who speak Russian and two who speak Mandarin. Though the agency has access to phone and in-person interpreters, Velasquez said some officers will ask a child in the house to translate.

“I told them, don’t use children, they’re in the middle of the fight,” she said.

She has aired the issue with police, but recognizes that it takes time to make change.

“I don’t think we are where we want to be, but at least we’re making a difference every single day,” she said. “They’re willing to learn and that for me is enough.”

Diversity team

Velasquez and other community members get the chance to talk about those problems with the police chief once a month during Chief’s Diversity Advisory Team meetings.

Brandon Lee, a self-described police agitator turned ally, observed a recent meeting and was impressed by the meaningful conversation between high-ranking police officials and community members.

“What I witnessed in the room in terms of the conversation, the dialogue, the virtues — it’s what we’re trying to promote,” he said.

Lee said that living as a black man in both the South and in Oakland, Calif., he has experienced more than 50 incidents of harassment by the police. He and his wife have since started Training for Transformation, which focuses on encouraging police agencies to embrace community-conscious policing.

“Instead of trying to eliminate all bias in law enforcement, we encourage departments to discover the humanity and struggle within various demographics living in their respective jurisdictions,” Lee said.

Lee was a facilitator at a workshop put on by the Oregon chapter of the FBI National Academy Associates in April. The Vancouver Police Department was the only out-of-state agency that attended the conference, and the agency brought with it a handful of members from the chief’s diversity team.

“It means a tremendous amount when the assistant chief calls me personally and says, ‘guess what? We’ve got a van load of community members coming down for the event,’ ” Lee said.

Lee plans to highlight the Chief’s Diversity Advisory Team in a case study about ways to improve community relations and reduce police violence.

The chief’s diversity team first started in 2003 under Chief Brian Martinek. The group has grown to include 35 community members representing various minority groups, six Vancouver police officials, three members from Vancouver Fire Department and three members from the city of Vancouver’s human resources department. The group stays in touch by email, and about 20 members meet in person each month during the lunch hour. Any of the group members can add an item to the agenda for discussion.

The community members who regularly attend the meetings say it’s beneficial to have face time with the police chief and other high-ranking officers.

“It is very, very rare,” said Margo Bryant, who represents the NAACP at the table. “I have talked to members of the NAACP along the West Coast and they say they’re not asked their opinions of hiring and those kinds of things. I think Vancouver is pretty unique.”

Vancouver’s Assistant Police Chief Chris Sutter said it’s what law enforcement across the U.S. needs to be doing.

“If we have a positive relationships and we have open lines of communication and we trust each other, we can put our minds together to make Vancouver a safer, more inclusive place,” Sutter said.

Vancouver police also spoke Saturday morning at a forum about crime prevention and diversity training that was hosted by the NAACP.

Recruiting minorities

Another way that the agency is striving to improve its relationship with diverse populations is by changing the way it looks.

“We know that when we have officers that represent the community we serve, it helps us build confidence,” Sutter said.

Of the agency’s 184 sworn officers, 160 are white. Of the officers who identify as a minority race, eight are Hispanic, six are Asian, seven are black and three are Pacific Islander.

Four percent of the police force is Hispanic, while, according to Census data, 10 percent of the city of Vancouver is Hispanic. Nearly 4 percent of the agency’s officers are black, while about 3 percent of the city is black.

Sgt. Dave Henderson, who heads the recruiting and hiring efforts for the department, said he can count on his hand the number of black job candidates he’s seen in the last six months. He’s seen about 20 Hispanic job candidates in the last year and a half.

If it weren’t for white men applying to be police officers, “then we wouldn’t have any police officers on the street,” Henderson said.

Now, the agency is upping its recruitment game. The department is considering a digital marketing strategy that targets people online who have expressed interest in jobs that are people- or community-focused. The idea, Henderson said, is to reach those who haven’t considered police work.

But the national news of white officers involved in altercations with minority citizens, some resulting in death, isn’t helping attract candidates. Henderson said he gets angry when he reads comments on news stories that are critical of police.

“It’s the only job that everybody knows exactly how to do. ‘You shouldn’t have done this, you shouldn’t have done that.’ Have you ever been a police officer? Do you have any idea what you’re even talking about?” he said.

His response is simple: come do the job.

“I would challenge every person — diverse ethnic (backgrounds) and women — to start coming in and applying to become law enforcement officers,” Henderson said. “Make a choice and be part of the solution.”

Tags
 
Loading...