The Vancouver Police Department had a reputation for going through police chiefs about every 18 months — until its current chief, James McElvain, arrived in 2013 from Southern California.
McElvain took over the lead role with 28 years of experience in law enforcement, as well as a doctoral degree in sociology with an emphasis on criminal justice and race and class inequity. Also an adjunct instructor of criminal justice at WSU Vancouver, he is seen as an academic whose management of the department is similar to running an enterprise.
A government will become dysfunctional if it doesn’t maintain the community’s trust or keep its broader interest in mind, said Jeff Mori, assistant chief of police. McElvain has the mark of a good executive, he said, because of his transparency and courage to make unpopular decisions.
“He changed the internal institutional structure, and it wasn’t easy,” Mori said.
Stepping into the role as Vancouver’s police chief as an outsider was difficult, and no amount of experience could prepare him for the role as a chief, McElvain said.
He thought he had all the answers, but that differed from reality once he sat at his desk in Vancouver. There was a new responsibility of making difficult decisions and owning the results.
McElvain said there was a learning curve with understanding the department’s culture and building trust within it. It took trial and error when navigating the tenuous environment. Conversations were sharp and pointed, and there was little compromise to be found for McElvain in his first three to four years in the department.
It’s easy for police chiefs to become discouraged and frustrated because of how complex the role can be, McElvain said. He entered law enforcement to be a change agent, but the “machine,” or the status quo, works against these efforts.
“When you go about making change and implementing this change, there’s this thing in place that will resist it,” he said.
Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey said the role of a chief comes with the pressure of being in the middle of representative groups while trying to be a change agent.
Although the beginning of his career as chief seemed slow to staff and the community, Lackey said, McElvain was building new connections with local agencies, nonprofits and other groups to understand how to operate the police organization.
Today, conversations between McElvain, bargaining units and Vancouver’s Police Guild are collaborative and they can achieve a win-win with few grievances.
“You can tell people you’re here to stay, but actions speak more,” McElvain said. “I think people were surprised that I was still here.”
Mori said McElvain understands the difference between what his authority and his role is — he recognizes that leadership is not a position and more of a behavior.
McElvain remained in the city’s police department longer than the expected tenure of past chiefs — 11 since the longest tenure ended in 1962 — because he has a hopeful vision for the department. He said he wants to switch its history of having a high turnover rate of chiefs.
“Most people that become chiefs are already at the end of their career and can take it on with little risk. It’s like a parachute with a safe landing,” he said. “(To make change), you stay in the game.”
With Vancouver’s expected growth on the way, McElvain’s cultivation of internal consistency will benefit the system internally and externally. He said it’s an exciting time to work in the police department because its transformation will provide many opportunities for officers.
“He’s trying to build something that lasts and not be a fleeting sensation,” Mori said.