Tuesday, September 28, 2021
Sept. 28, 2021

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Vancouver police struggling to hire and retain enough officers, chief says

Chief McElvain points to low morale and generation gaps in report to Vancouver city council

By , Columbian staff writer
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The Vancouver Police Department is struggling to hire and retain enough officers due in part to the current political climate, according to Police Chief James McElvain.

In a report delivered to the Vancouver city council Monday, McElvain said that morale is worsening in his department and in police departments across the country. His assertions align with a survey from the Police Executive Research Forum, PERF, which earlier this year found that calls for accountability and anti-racism reform are driving people away from careers in law enforcement.

“These are certainly some very interesting and challenging times for policing. (In) 35 years, I’ve never seen this extent,” McElvain said. “Nationally and regionally speaking, this past year’s events certainly rival those of the 1960s.”

He alluded to the anti-policing protests that erupted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, as well as 21-year-old Vancouver resident Kevin Peterson, who was fatally shot by Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputies last year.

“And I acknowledge, in the city of Vancouver, we have people regularly coming into the precinct dropping off cards, dropping off cookies,” McElvain continued. “But what’s occurring nationally and regionally is impacting the morale of law enforcement.”

Partly due to that narrative, McElvain said, the department is falling behind the city’s population growth and struggling to keep pace with new hires as Vancouver adds more residents. The department employs 1.2 sworn officers per 1,000 city residents; statewide, the average is 1.39 officers per thousand, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

The VPD is also facing a likely exodus of officers, McElvain said. As of this year, 41 of the city’s 234 officers will have been with the VPD for more than 20 years, making them eligible for retirement.

“Each one of these leaves a hole somewhere in the department,” he said.

To replace outgoing officers and maintain that 1.2 per thousand benchmark, the department will need to hire 55 new officers this year alone. Between background checks, wait times and police academy courses, more than a year can pass between a potential officer’s job application and when they become a full-fledged member of law enforcement, McElvain said.

“Everyone in law enforcement is facing that same hurdle. We’re not the only ones trying to figure out how to hire more people,” McElvain added.

In June, the PERF report surveyed nearly 200 police departments nationwide. It found that retirements in 2020-21 rose 45 percent compared to the prior year, while resignations rose 20 percent. Hiring of new police officers dropped by 5 percent.

Morale isn’t the only factor, McElvain acknowledged. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Vancouver police and the statewide Public Safety Testing agency paused its in-person exams, slowing the hiring process.

He also partly attributed retention struggles to generational shifts in how young people approach their careers. There’s more mobility and job-hopping among the workforce than in decades past, McElvain said.

“Today’s workforce is different from my generation of workforce,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe the department should lower its standards in order to attract more applicants. “Maybe we need to look for people that just test drive law enforcement as a career.”

During the meeting, city councilors thanked the chief and reiterated their support for the police department.

“I do think, though, it’s important that we express empathy,” Councilor Erik Paulsen said. “Our folks who are first responders and law enforcement and police have been deeply affected by what’s happening… (but) there are others in our community who are feeling equally unsettled.”

McElvain also addressed the slate of law enforcement reform bills passed by the Legislature in its recent session. He said he worries that some reforms – like a bill banning neck restraints, and a bill that raised the standard of proof to detain someone for noncriminal suspicious activity from “reasonable” to “probable” – will have “a definite cooling effect on police being proactive.”

“Law enforcement, forever, has been under reform,” McElvain said. “We’re in the midst of that, it’s just at a little bit of a steeper slope.”

Columbian staff writer
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