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Vancouver Police Chief McElvain to remain a class act after retirement

James McElvain to teach criminal justice after 8 years leading Vancouver Police Department

By , Columbian staff writer
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Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain, the department's longest running chief since 1962, will retire Thursday after serving the agency in its lead position for eight years.
Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain, the department's longest running chief since 1962, will retire Thursday after serving the agency in its lead position for eight years. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

For the past few weeks, the Vancouver Police Department’s longest-tenured chief since 1962 has slowly cleared stacks of papers and various mementos from his office.

Chief James McElvain joined the agency in 2013 with 28 years of experience and a doctoral degree in sociology under his belt. Prior to his arrival, the police department cycled through its lead chiefs about every 18 months. He remained for about eight years before deciding he was ready for a new chapter. Today is his last day.

As his departure quickly approached, the chief was somewhat reserved about the congratulatory date.

“I would liken (my retirement) to being a small child anticipating Christmas,” McElvain said during an interview Monday. “As Christmas gets closer, that anticipation grows, and then once it arrives, it’s like, ‘Well, it’s here. Now what?’”

Yet, he has a plan — one that seems contrary to a traditional retirement.

He’s going back to school. Specifically, McElvain is continuing his role as an instructor in higher education with the University of Virginia.

In January, McElvain began his position as an online lecturer through the institution’s public safety program, which is taught in an asynchronous format. Locally, he will continue serving as an adjunct professor of criminal justice for Washington State University Vancouver, a role McElvain assumed in 2020.

“It’s exciting to be a part of the conversation, because these are people that are looking to take law enforcement to that next level,” McElvain said. “They’re seeking out the education (and) the tools to lead our profession to its next chapter.”

McElvain’s retirement plan doesn’t fully subscribe to a commonly embraced slow-paced route consisting of birding, gardening and photography. Between his teachings, the chief will be able to travel with his wife and invest more time in one of his greatest passions: trying to hit a small, white ball in an uncoordinated manner.

“(Golf is) more than hitting the ball, but seeing what direction it’ll go,” he said with a chuckle.

Although McElvain is remaining busy, it will be a refreshing change of pace.

‘Leaving us better than he found us’

McElvain can clearly recall his early career, which began in 1986 in Southern California. Simply being able to enter the profession remains one of his biggest highlights as an officer. At that time, departments weren’t facing massive job openings and staffing issues that are commonplace today, he said.

Swift law enforcement paradigm shifts also led to an overwhelming cascade of change, McElvain added. As a young officer, he saw policy changes and new trainings unfold at a gradual pace, making them easier to absorb. These adjustments seem to occur more rapidly today, McElvain said, leading to administrative burnout.

Yet, the chief maintained his stride and cultivated a consistent and transparent system within the department. Troy Price, assistant chief of police, said McElvain was intentional about organizing departmental processes to make operations smoother, as well as showing interest and genuine care for his staff.

“It takes a person with a lot of leadership and experience when things are difficult,” Price said. “(The past few years) have shown his talent.”

“He’s leaving us better than he found us,” Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said during a city council meeting Monday.

Teri Kenning, administrative assistant to the chief, worked with former Chief Clifford Cook, who left under duress following his controversial tenure, as well as succeeding interim Chief Chris Sutter.

Upon his entry, McElvain worked to resolve the issues that plagued the department, Kenning said. He approached internal tensions with bargaining units and Vancouver’s Police Guild in a collaborative manner to achieve accommodations with few gripes.

The department’s engagement with the community, previously stagnant, appeared to improve under his leadership, which included managing the Chief’s Diversity Advisory Team and de-escalation training, Kenning said.

“He was willing to go out and meet with them and meet with the community and talk with them about what their perception is of the police department,” she said. “We don’t want to see mistrust (from) our community. We want to see trust.”

Assistant Police Chief Jeffrey Mori will officially become chief of police at 5 p.m. today following McElvain’s last shift.

“I give myself very little credit to any of the successes,” McElvain said. “(They) really have been because of the men and women that show up every day to do this job.”