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Oct. 2, 2022

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New Vancouver police chief backs withdrawal from drug task force

Department needs resources as crime rates increase, staffing remains low

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

Vancouver Police Chief Jeff Mori proposed withdrawing the department from the Clark-Vancouver Regional Drug Task Force at a Vancouver City Council meeting Monday, stepping back from a decadeslong partnership to address drug crimes.

Vancouver’s law enforcement is being run thin amid rising crime rates and worsening staffing shortages, the chief said. Assets need to be used wisely – even if that means pulling Vancouver’s one detective from the task force.

“This is not going to create a void,” Mori said in an interview with The Columbian. “As we continue to get more resources, we will reimagine what police work looks like in our community here, but we really need to get a hold of our violent crime — because that in itself is a vacuum or a void that we need to fill right now.”

Council members unanimously supported and passed the effort spearheaded by Mori, who just began his second month as the department’s chief.

“We’re looking forward to your administration in month number two and for the next 10 years,” Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said.

The regional task force identifies, investigates and interrupts drug trafficking operations, specifically mid- to upper-level drug dealers and manufacturers. Its responsibilities will remain intact without the Vancouver Police Department’s involvement, the chief said.

Mori pointed to local divisions that have duties similar to the task force, including Vancouver’s Neighborhood Response Team, patrol division officers and Safe Streets Task Force. Each team addresses and responds to street-level crimes, some of which have a nexus to drugs.

Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins, who leads the regional drug task force, was not available for comment.

John Horch, Clark County chief criminal deputy, said the Vancouver Police Department’s decision is understandable, as the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is also facing staffing shortages.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t share my disappointment,” Horch said. “Hopefully, this will be temporary and can be revisited in the future.”

In the interim, the task force is reaching out to other regional agencies, such as the Skamania County Sheriff, to fill the absence of Vancouver’s detective. The withdrawal could slightly alter the task force’s federal funding but not enough to disband the team, Horch said, and there are other funding alternatives that can be pursued.

The chief deputy and Mori were quick to emphasize the agencies’ partnership is still intact.

The team, established in the 1980s, is comprised of employees from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, Washington State Patrol and the Vancouver Police Department. The sheriff’s office assigns one sergeant, two detectives and a part-time detective to the team. Homeland Security, Washington State Patrol, the Vancouver Police Department also provide their own detectives.

Transitioning out of the task force will take a minimum of six months to fall in accordance with an interlocal agreement, which requires a written notice to the executive board. Mori shared his intent with Atkins in mid-July regarding his presentation before the Vancouver City Council on Monday for its approval.

Staffing shortages, increased crime

The Vancouver Police Department continues to chip at resolving crime statistics from last year, Mori said. There has been a 26 percent uptick in mostly property and violent crimes, and call volumes jumped 27 percent.

But reducing these numbers is harder with ongoing recruitment difficulties.

“When you’re trying to play a game with the same number of players and the game’s changed, you need more players,” Mori said.

There are currently vacancies for 26 police officer two assistant chief positions, as well as an additional six police record specialist and crime analyst positions. The numbers aren’t unique to Vancouver. A Police Executive Research Forum study examining staffing between 2020-2021 found a significant increase in retirements and resignations. The report, which surveyed nearly 200 police departments nationwide, also found a 5 percent drop in new officer hires.

Former Chief James McElvain previously chalked up these numbers to be reflective of low morale in police departments amid tense political climates. Until the Vancouver Police Department fills its vacancies, leadership will continue to work with available resources.

“Not sure if one detective will make a considerable difference,” Mori continued, “but it will make a difference and we have to increase our efforts as soon as possible.”

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