Despite a spate of officer-involved shootings over the last month, Vancouver’s police chief says he’s confident the department’s policies are in line with statewide public safety standards and that his officers are following best practices.
Since Feb. 5, the Vancouver Police Department has been involved in four officer-involved shootings — three of them fatal. The recent shootings appear to be the most in one year for the police agency over the last 25 years, a Columbian analysis found.
“I think, for a department of our size, it is a little unusual to have so many back-to-back. I think it is outside the norm,” Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain said in a phone interview Wednesday. “What my experience has told me is, really the only consistency I see, is the behavior of the citizen involved has (caused) this incident to occur. It’s not usual for officers to need to use lethal force when people are cooperative.”
A Columbian analysis of local law enforcement policies on use of force, specifically lethal force, found that the Vancouver Police Department’s policies largely mirror those of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and the Camas and Battle Ground police departments.
In a nutshell, all of the policies say deadly force is necessary when officers need to protect themselves or others from threat of death or serious injury. Deadly force is also permissible to prevent the escape of a fleeing violent felon when there’s probable cause to believe the felon has threatened serious harm or death, or if they are not apprehended poses the threat of harm to officers or others.
Each policy speaks to the reasonableness of the amount of force used, based on the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time.
“We’re pretty confident that our policy is up to date. We are looking at our policy on a regular basis,” McElvain said. “Are we specifically going to pull out our policy because we’ve had a couple of officer-involved shootings? Not necessarily.”
Some community members, however, are questioning the department’s policies and calling for officers to wear body cameras. An online petition for body-worn cameras is circulating on Facebook.
Adam Kravitz, founder of Vancouver-based homeless advocacy organization Outsiders Inn, says he’s been vocal about the recent police shootings and in sharing the online petition. He said a number of local organizations have joined forces to begin an open dialogue with the police department.
“Basically, it feels like our voices are not being heard and that we need to do more and more and raise our voices even more. … They are about public safety; there’s a large portion of our community that doesn’t feel safe calling the police,” he said.
Kravitz also expressed concerns following other media reports quoting McElvain as saying the department plans to “stay the course.”
“It’s the police department’s responsibility to hear the public’s concerns, and what I heard from the top official in an interview the other day is that he’s not concerned with what we’re saying,” Kravitz said.
McElvain told The Columbian his comments were taken out of context. His department is in the process of getting its entire policy manual online for the public to view, he said.
“I’m one that really believes that we work for the benefit of our community. With that said, how closely can we be in step with what our community desires from its police department? As you become a much larger and diverse community, how do you come to a consensus on what the community wants?” McElvain said. “Law enforcement is tasked with looking at what are the best practices for our profession — part of it is maintaining a good relationship and communication with the community.”
As for body-worn cameras, McElvain said he’s not opposed to the idea; “it’s a technology that is continuing to expand in the policing profession.”
However, he said, body-worn cameras are expensive, particularly in maintaining data, and time consuming in terms of public disclosure requests and establishing the right policies. There are also privacy issues, McElvain said. For instance, officers need to be mindful of the people captured on the recording, he said, especially when investigating a domestic violence case or sexual assault.
“It’s super easy to say, as a philosophy, we should all wear body-worn cameras, but with that, comes a great deal of expense and policy implications,” he said.
This isn’t the first time a conversation about body-worn cameras has come up, McElvain said, adding that it’s been on his to-do list.
“I think we’ll get there at one point, but it’s not a decision you make a knee-jerk reaction to,” he said.
If there was a tremendous push from the community for police to have body-worn cameras, McElvain said, he would explore that option and put together a brief of what it would entail.
Outsiders Inn, with other concerned parties, plans to draft a formal statement over the next month to present to the Vancouver City Council.
“We’re going to try from the top down and work from that direction,” Kravitz said.
In a prepared statement from the city, in which Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, City Manager Eric Holmes and McElvain are quoted, Holmes said the city is open to hearing community feedback.
“We are saddened by these recent tragedies, and the city is committed to listening to our community’s voices and concerns. I understand there are many questions surrounding these incidents, but it is vital that we exercise patience while waiting for the investigations to be completed. We will communicate information when it becomes available,” Holmes said.
Holmes told The Columbian in an interview that he believes “Chief McElvain is providing the right leadership and steady hand and emphasis on training, transparency and cooperation in the investigations.”
Use-of-force policies are routinely reviewed by local law enforcement agencies, including the Vancouver Police Department.
McElvain said his department relies on a manual from the company Lexipol, which provides web-based public safety policy and training. The department has a subscription with Lexipol, which updates policies to stay up to date with changes in the law or changes in court decisions, he said. The subscription service also provides training bulletins each month. Officers click on the trainings throughout the month, which present policy-based scenarios they must review and answer.
Clark County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Mike McCabe said he believes the police department’s policies closely mirror the sheriff’s office’s policies, because the county and city work closely together, including on SWAT and hostage negotiation teams.
In the last 25 years, the sheriff’s office has been involved in at least 15 shootings, according to Columbian archives.
When the sheriff’s office reviews its use-of-force policies, it does so at all levels, McCabe said, whether it’s an officer-involved shooting or suspect who’s forcefully placed to the ground and handcuffed.
The sheriff’s office last reviewed its use-of-force policies Aug. 27, McCabe said. The agency has been accredited through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies since 1986, and is required to review its policies each year and undergo an audit every three years to ensure it is following best practices in the state and nationally, McCabe said. The last audit was in 2017.
Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey said his department revised its use-of-force policies last year, with help of its insurance company. A Seattle attorney was hired and vetted the policies to make sure everything was appropriate, he said.
Lackey’s department has been involved in three police shootings in the last 25 years.
“For a small agency, those are big. Those things stand out,” he said.
Among the factors considered for the reasonableness of force used are: the conduct of the person being confronted; physical factors, such as size, strength and skill level; influence of intoxicants or mental capacity; the proximity of weapons; other resources available at the time; the seriousness of the reason for contact; training and experience; potential for injury to those involved and citizens; risk of escape; and exigent circumstances.
“What prompts policy change faster than anything is new case law and laws enacted by the Legislature,” McCabe said. “It does change for other reasons, new training and new philosophies on policing.”
McCabe and McElvain say they anticipate Initiative 940, which passed by voters in November and changed the standard for police use of deadly force, will prompt further review of their policies.
As it stands, local officer-involved shootings typically result in an independent investigation through the Regional Major Crimes Team.
“The role of the Regional Major Crimes Team is to conduct a thorough, fair and impartial investigation and that investigation is then presented to the prosecutor’s office,” McCabe said.
“These detectives have a good working relationship, but that’s pretty much where it begins and ends. Their job is to be a finder of the facts,” McCabe said of the investigating agencies.
Until recently, the police department’s major crimes team would assist in police shooting investigations, involving the department, with another agency taking the lead. But over the last couple of months, that practice has changed because of I-940, to ensure a truly independent investigation, McElvain said.
“There’s certainly incidents that have occurred in the United States where you see and hear police misconduct and cover-up,” McElvain said. “We will be as transparent as possible and don’t interfere with the investigation. We want the investigative process to occur.”