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Dec. 9, 2022

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Clark County law enforcement officials discuss rising property crime at town hall

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

Crime in the city of Vancouver has increased by about 60 percent since 2019, Police Chief James McElvain said Wednesday during a virtual town hall event on rising property crime in the area.

A community group, Vancouver Citizens Against Property Crime, organized the event out of concern for increased crime in their neighborhoods.

Speakers included McElvain; Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins; Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik; Jill Brown, widow of sheriff’s Sgt. Jeremy Brown; Vancouver police Cpl. Greg Catton; and several state legislators. More than 200 people joined the two-hour Zoom meeting.

Some in the chat function of the meeting criticized the town hall, calling it one-sided because most of the speaking time was devoted to law enforcement. Organizers said they hope the town hall is the first of many, and they aspire to include more community stakeholders going forward.

Property crime rates

McElvain shared data that showed a sharp increase in property crime and other lower-level crime in Vancouver since 2019.

According to department data, officers responded to 173 percent more auto theft calls in 2021 compared with 2019. The agency saw an 88 percent increase in vandalism calls between those years. Officers recorded a 75 percent spike in vehicle prowl calls and a 52 percent rise in theft calls.

Vancouver police responded to 22 percent fewer DUI calls, but McElvain said that could be because there are fewer patrol officers on the streets.

Atkins said the sheriff’s office’s data shows just a 3 percent increase in violent crime over the past few years but a 33 percent increase in lower-level crime. Auto thefts are up by 48 percent in the unincorporated parts of the county, the sheriff said.

Jail space

Officials said one cause of the rising crime rates is a lack of jail space, particularly while following COVID-19 distancing protocols. People arrested for nonviolent crimes, such as theft, vehicle prowling and burglary, are being released while their court cases are pending.

Atkins said officers are seeing people who are released with pending property crime cases, such as mail theft, reoffend. Golik said it’s common for those who are released to stop showing up for court.

“The local issue for property crime is the jail,” Golik said. “It’s our jail before COVID, but now during COVID, it’s a huge issue.”

Atkins stressed a need for a larger, more modern facility. The effort to replace the jail stalled in 2019 after proposals for a new facility came with price tags of $381 million to $413 million.

HB 1310

Law enforcement officials also took aim at police reform legislation passed last year, particularly House Bill 1310, which limits when officers can use force and how much.

Both McElvain and Atkins said it “handcuffs” them from doing their jobs if someone flees and officers don’t yet have probable cause to arrest the person.

State Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said the Legislature is working on new bills to clarify confusion from the reforms. Still, Goodman said HB 1310 was important to creating a statewide standard for police force.

“This is responding not to some vague idea but to some really unfortunate circumstances, not just across the country and in Minneapolis and so forth but here in our own state, in a number of different places where particularly people from marginalized communities have unfortunately lost their lives in interactions with the police,” Goodman said during the town hall. “And we listened to the families of those communities and responded to that. Now it’s a question of balancing.”

Staffing issues

The sheriff and police chief also pointed to low staffing levels in their agencies.

McElvain said his department is authorized to have 234 officers on staff; lately, the department has had about 215 officers and that number changes weekly.

To incentivize people to join the department, McElvain said it’s offering $10,000 signing bonuses over the span of three years for entry-level officers. The three-year bonus for officers already certified with other agencies is $25,000.

Atkins said the sheriff’s office cannot afford to offer those kinds of bonuses, so he has a particularly hard time recruiting new deputies.

The sheriff called his department’s officer-per-capita ratio the worst in the state for county law enforcement. With less than 150 deputies, Atkins said he has 0.67 deputies per 1,000 people in the agency’s jurisdiction. The average county ratio is 1 to 1.25 officers per 1,000 people, he said.

“The sheriff’s office is struggling terribly right now, probably the worst I’ve seen it in 42 years,” Atkins said.

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