Vancouver needs a strong police force. So does every other community in Clark County and, indeed, throughout the nation.
We need well-funded, fully staffed departments that meet the needs of growing communities while preventing and investigating crime. It is a foundation of civilized society, and a surge of violent crime has demonstrated the need for effective policing.
We also need officers of integrity and compassion who treat all citizens with respect. Effective, robust oversight is necessary, and law enforcement must be held to the highest standards of conduct.
These notions are not mutually exclusive. We can “back the blue” while still demanding accountability for officers who violate the dictums of their occupation, and Washington has recently enacted several laws to help enforce that accountability.
Too often these days, the need for policing is presented as being in conflict with the standards of policing. That is one reason Vancouver is having difficulty attracting and retaining officers.
“These are certainly some very interesting and challenging times for policing. (In) 35 years, I’ve never seen this extent,” Police Chief James McElvain recently told the Vancouver City Council. “Nationally and regionally speaking, this past year’s events certainly rival those of the 1960s.”
McElvain alluded to anti-police protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, as well as the death of 21-year-old Vancouver resident Kevin Peterson, who was fatally shot last year by Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputies. An investigation by Pierce County officials last week determined that the shooting of Peterson was justified after he pointed a gun at officers.
Nationally, many municipalities have reduced police budgets in the wake of protests.
“And I acknowledge, in the city of Vancouver, we have people regularly coming into the precinct dropping off cards, dropping off cookies,” McElvain said. “But what’s occurring nationally and regionally is impacting the morale of law enforcement.”
The city of Vancouver employs 1.2 sworn officers per 1,000 residents; statewide, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the average is 1.39 officers per 1,000.
And, McElvain added, 41 of the city’s 234 officers will have 20 years service as of this year, making them eligible for retirement. The department must hire 55 new officers to remain at the 1.2-per-1,000 benchmark.
“Everyone in law enforcement is facing that same hurdle. We’re not the only ones trying to figure out how to hire more people,” he said. In a national survey, the Police Executive Research Forum found that retirements in 2020-21 rose 45 percent compared to the prior year, while resignations rose 20 percent. The hiring of new officers dropped by 5 percent.
“It is an extremely difficult time to be a police officer,” Maria Haberfeld of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York told the New York Times.
Philip Stinson, a former officer who is a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, touched on the crux of the issue: “It is not necessarily a bad thing to have to rethink who you want to be a police officer.”
Vancouver and other municipalities must continue to focus on improving law enforcement. As McElvain said, “Law enforcement, forever, has been under reform. We’re in the midst of that; it’s just at a little bit of a steeper slope.”
That poses some difficulties that hopefully will be temporary. A fully staffed police force that is held to the highest standards will improve our communities.