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News / Clark County News

La Center considers contracting police services

It’s ‘a very common practice in other parts of the state’

By Jack Heffernan, Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published: April 25, 2021, 6:04am

The city of La Center is considering contracting out law enforcement services with a neighboring agency.

The city’s police department currently has three officers and a sergeant in addition to interim Police Chief Bob Richardson. Richardson has recommended that the city explore the possibility of contracting with another agency.

“This is a very common practice in other parts of the state of Washington and across the United States,” Richardson said. “This would give the city an opportunity to compare costs, strengths and weaknesses of having a city police department versus contracting out.”

Since Richardson was hired in January, two officers have left for other police agencies, and another deployed for a year to fulfill military obligations. He said the department “is very small with no other opportunities other than patrol.”

“We don’t have specialty positions such as school resource officers, detectives or a traffic unit,” Richardson said. “In addition, our police activity and crime response are very low. It is not unusual for small departments to hire and train police officers only to have them leave for departments that have more opportunities for career development, and an increase in police action.”

Richardson and Jeff Swanson — manager of Exigy Consulting, former city manager in Battle Ground and former economic development director with Clark County — co-wrote an assessment about the department’s status. They discussed the report on Tuesday with the city council.

The assessment found that 38 percent of the city’s budget is spent on policing — more than Battle Ground and Ridgefield — and 84 percent of policing costs are tied to compensation. It also found that between 2015 and 2019, La Center’s crime rate was the sixth-lowest of 21 comparably sized cities in the state.

Between 2016 and 2019, the city’s tax revenue from card rooms declined nearly 60 percent, due in large part to the opening of the nearby ilani casino. Card room closures due to COVID-19 caused the city to take some of the largest revenue hits in Clark County last year.

The report also found that officers spent only 19 percent of work time on calls for service. The vast majority of officer-initiated calls were related to premises checks, traffic enforcement and patrol emphasis such as intoxicated driving patrols around holidays.

On Tuesday, the city council discussed the feasibility of contracting out police services and what a potential contract would include, such as patrol time, traffic emphasis, local presence and response time. The council will discuss the matter again after city staff explores more specifics about contracting.

“City staff will begin exploring these options with neighboring jurisdictions and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office,” Mayor Greg Thornton said.

Columbian county government and small cities reporter