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Public weighs in on review of Vancouver police use of force

Forum part of nonprofit organization's 9-month analysis of department’s policies

By , Columbian breaking news reporter
Published: September 11, 2019, 10:40pm
3 Photos
People gather Wednesday evening for a forum on the Vancouver Police Department’s use-of-force policies in the auditorium at Clark College’s Foster Hall. Zach Wilkinson/The Columbian
People gather Wednesday evening for a forum on the Vancouver Police Department’s use-of-force policies in the auditorium at Clark College’s Foster Hall. Zach Wilkinson/The Columbian Photo Gallery

A review of the Vancouver Police Department’s use-of-force policies faced scrutiny Wednesday night during a public forum.

The Police Executive Research Forum — a nonprofit, national law enforcement membership organization — entered into a contract Aug. 1 with the city to conduct the review. About 50 people attended the forum at Clark College’s Foster Auditorium.

Tom Wilson, director of PERF’s Center for Applied Research and Management, was on hand to answer questions and listen to feedback from the audience. He commended Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain for his department’s transparency and open-mindedness.

“Let me be very frank on this, kudos to the Vancouver police chief for letting us do this,” Wilson said. “That’s a statement to you, to your police leadership, to your city manager.”

PERF has completed more than 250 comprehensive management studies of law enforcement agencies nationwide over four decades and is recognized as a leader in use of force and police accountability, according to the Vancouver Police Department.

The review comes after a spate of officer-involved shootings, three of which were fatal, between Feb. 5 and March 7. Two shootings involved people of color, and a third involved a homeless man previously diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Some in attendance Wednesday night offered their perspectives on the department’s training, engagement with people of color and handling of those with mental health issues. Questions also delved into specifics about the review process and the organization’s independence from the department.

“I’m feeling a little bit skeptical,” Danielle Jokela said. “It feels like law enforcement investigating law enforcement.”

Wilson responded, “All I can tell you with regards to that is the proof is in our work.”

Three representatives from the organization spent three days in Vancouver, and four additional people are reviewing the department’s policies from the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Wilson said. Staff was scheduled to meet with members of the department, city councilors and the city manager.

9-month process

The Chief’s Diversity Advisory Team, which includes residents representing several communities, was used as a focus group. PERF also planned to meet with the department’s training unit to address what officers do and how they do it, McElvain said.

The entire review process will take roughly nine months as the organization develops recommendations.

Community tensions, much like earlier this year, were visible again Wednesday night as several in attendance asked about PERF’s emphasis on racial bias in its review. Among the people who spoke about police engagement with people of color and those with mental health issues was Nickeia Hunter, whose brother, Carlos Hunter, was shot and killed by Vancouver police in March.

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“There really is no accountability when it comes to the slayings,” Hunter said. “I just don’t understand how my brother was not arrested like other members of the community that I’ve seen.”

The first half of the roughly 1 1/2 -hour meeting centered on the review process. Toward the end, questions were aimed more at McElvain and the department’s response to the four shootings.

Criticism ranged from the chief’s initial hesitation to review policies to questions about whether people of color were included enough in the review process.

“If your report doesn’t acknowledge that, your report means nothing to us,” Vancouver resident Cindi Fisher said of the impact the shootings have had on minority communities. “The reports are not going to change the community.”

McElvain, to the dismay of some, continued to defend his department.

“I’ll say it again today. I think we have a well-trained police department,” he said. “But please hear me, I didn’t say there was nothing to learn from that.”

As the forum concluded, McElvain grabbed the microphone for a final statement.

“If I wasn’t intent on doing something proactive about this, I wouldn’t have recommended that we do this study,” the chief said. “I didn’t say that we couldn’t improve what we do.”

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