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Dec. 3, 2022

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Vancouver police release independent review of use-of-force policies

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter, and
, Columbian Assistant Metro Editor

A consultant’s review of the Vancouver Police Department’s use-of-force policies has identified dozens of recommendations to reshape the department’s culture, including 10 changes that should be implemented immediately.

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.

The city ordered the independent assessment following four Vancouver police shootings, three of which were fatal, last year. The study found that those shootings occurred during a three-year period in which the number of use-of-force incidents by Vancouver police increased by 65 percent.

Community tensions ran high following the shootings, which occurred between Feb. 5, 2019, and March 7, 2019. Two of the fatalities involved people of color and the third involved a homeless man previously diagnosed with schizophrenia. The shootings prompted rallies and gatherings demanding changes and an online petition calling for police body-worn cameras.

The nonprofit was tasked with examining the police department’s policies, training, documentation methods, and data on use-of-force and officer-involved-shooting incidents. On Friday, the police department announced the review was finished and available to the public.

“The PERF report includes a comprehensive set of 84 recommendations that will serve as a roadmap to reform the (police department’s) culture, policies and practices around use of force,” the department said.

The recommendations identified for immediate action in the 91-page report include the following:

 Prohibition of any type of neck restraint, or shooting at or from a moving vehicle.

 Restricting the use of police K-9s to “serious criminal offenses.”

 Ensuring police sergeants respond immediately to difficult situations, such as calls involving people with mental illnesses, “in which a use of force might be necessary or when a well-managed response might result in compliance without use of force.”

 Training and requirements that lieutenants who conduct reviews of critical incidents consider the event in its entirety, which should include looking for ways to improve communications, tactics, policy, training and use of equipment.

 Ensuring use-of-force reports are reviewed by each level of the police department’s command, up to the assistant chief.

The final, immediate recommendation is meeting with the community to discuss the changes. Officials here and nationwide have been on the receiving end of an unprecedented call for policing reform, Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes said.

“We have listened to the concerns from our residents, recognize the need for change and are committed to serving the public safety needs of all of our communities in a more just and equitable manner,” Holmes said in a statement.

“We want to improve equity, accountability and transparency, promote higher standards, and increase public trust and confidence,” he added.

NAACP Vancouver Vice President Jasmine Tolbert said the organization is still looking through the use-of-force review.

Tolbert said police should take action as soon as possible on the immediate recommendations to improve for the community.

“When they’re taking those actions, we’ll react accordingly, whether negative or positive,” Tolbert said.

Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens President Ed Hamilton Rosales said the organization’s council is reading the review and plans to discuss the particulars in a conference call this weekend. Rosales said he and the council want to better understand the numerous recommendations.

“We’re looking forward to help put the recommendations in place, and hopefully there will be a more effective plan for doing so moving forward,” Rosales said.

Surge in incidents

Between 2017 and 2019, the Vancouver Police Department’s number of use-of-force incidents increased by 65 percent, according to PERF’s findings. The report states that there doesn’t appear to be any policy or reporting changes that explain the increase. During the same time frame, the department had nine officer-involved shootings.

“PERF found that a relatively small number of officers were involved in a disproportionate number of force incidents,” the report reads.

Of the 178 officers involved in 720 use-of-force incidents during that time period, 93 were involved in one to five incidents each; 72 were involved in six to 15 incidents each; nine were involved in 16 to 20 incidents each; and four were involved in 26 to 34 incidents each. The report notes, however, that it doesn’t necessarily mean those officers acted inappropriately.

The department’s data shows that 78.1 percent of the involved subjects were male, 21.1 percent were female and 0.8 percent were unknown. As far as ethnicity and race, 75.1 percent were white, 11.6 percent were Black, 2.8 percent were Asian, 1.8 percent were Pacific Islander and 0.5 percent were Native American. However, about 50 percent of the subjects’ ethnicities were reported as “unknown,” the report states.

In reviewing officers’ reports, PERF found that nearly half of subjects involved in use-of-force incidents were perceived to be under the influence of intoxicants. Nearly one-third of subjects had at least one “mental health indicator,” according to officers, but they didn’t consistently identify specific indicators.

“The team found that a higher percentage of subjects in ‘serious’ incidents were perceived to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, as compared to overall subjects of force. In addition, a higher percentage of the subjects in ‘serious’ force incidents were thought to have a mental illness, as compared to subjects in the overall use-of-force data,” the report reads.

Of the total subjects in the force incidents, 38.2 percent suffered injuries, PERF found. It recommended that the department start including more detailed data about the injuries.

The department has already started to improve its use-of-force reporting by adopting new protocols for data collection, according to PERF.

Task force planned

The police department said it will convene a community task force to help implement the recommendations laid out in the review. The group will help ensure transparency and accountability as the work continues, police said. It will also advise on establishing a body-worn camera program for the department, in time for the Vancouver City Council to consider it as part of the 2021-2022 biennial budget this fall.

The task force’s members will include representatives from the city council, the city manager’s office, the police department’s Diversity Advisory Team and “communities affected by police,” among others. The city reportedly has started reaching out to people to join the task force.

Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain said he wants to ensure the recommendations are put in place, which involves bringing new voices and perspectives to the table.

“We are embarking on a new era of American policing, one that is more responsive to what all communities expect from their police department,” he said in a statement.

Columbian Breaking News Reporter