Crime is up in Vancouver, and police department is struggling to recruit new officers
It has been a few days since Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain gave a presentation on the state of law enforcement in the city.
A few days to reflect on rising crime rates, the potential reduction in the number of police officers, and the challenges of adapting to new protocols and new legislation.
Enough time for Bart Hansen, a Vancouver City Council member, to request that city leaders, all city leaders, back the blue.
“We need to have the best possible police department that we can,” Hansen said.
No, that does not mean having blind faith in all matters blue. Citizens who have concerns about policing need to be heard. Action should be taken to improve policing, he said.
“We need to hold people accountable, whether that is police or society,” Hansen said.
There are ways to accomplish that without demonizing law enforcement. He is not suggesting that anyone in Vancouver is doing that, but nationally — and across the river — there have been a number of cities with leaders who seem to have an anti-police agenda.
“Through the years, I have supported law enforcement 100 percent. That has not changed,” Hansen said. “It’s not a matter of holding one group accountable over another. It’s about recognizing what a difficult job law enforcement has and making sure we get the proper training and resources for the officers in the field so they can do the best job serving our community.”
Working together along with a show of support for law enforcement will help the department attract the best people to apply for positions, he added.
McElvain said Monday at a workshop in front of the mayor and the City Council that the job has always been difficult, but it is more difficult now than in any of his previous 35 years in law enforcement.
The chief opened his comments by thanking his law enforcement officers, staff, and volunteers for their dedication.
“I’m humbled by their commitment to show up every day despite the ever-present negative dialogue from the mainstream media, social media, special interest groups, as well as political soundbites,” McElway said. “To endure this every day, yet show up and do their best to serve our community is very commendable.”
The political climate, throughout the Northwest, throughout the country, has had an effect on recruitment. The numbers are concerning. Crime is on the rise in Vancouver, and the police department is operating below the number of authorized positions. There are dozens who are eligible to retire this year.
McElvain said the department has averaged about 13 people leaving the force annually over the last few years. Already this year, 10 have left, two more will leave by the end of this month, and the chief has heard from up to a dozen more who say they intend to leave by the end of the year.
Some are retiring. Others, though, are just leaving the force.
“They’re seeking other opportunities, or they have just realized it’s time to go,” McElvain said. “Some of that has to do with the national narrative around policing.”
He added he has not experienced anything like this in his career.
McElvain reminded the council that it takes about a year-and-a-half to hire an entry-level officer, from the application process, to background checks, interviews, the academy, and then field training.
The chief also acknowledged that law enforcement needs to do a better job of recruitment.
“We’re not great at this. We own it. We have not found that one right thing,” he said. “Everybody in law enforcement is facing that same hurdle.”
When hiring does not keep up with the departures in the department, it can affect the quality of policing.
Calls for service — citizens calling 9-1-1 or 3-1-1, for example — were 76,000, 72,000, and 70,000 the last three years. This year, Vancouver is on pace for 84,000.
If those numbers can be attributed to population growth, McElvain also pointed out that crime rates are going up, too, as in criminal offenses per 1,000 people. Vancouver ballooned to 85 criminal offenses per 1,000 people in 2020. In 2019, it was 79.4. In the previous six years, that number was in the 60s.
In the last year, McElvain said, crime is up 9.6 percent in Vancouver, 9.3 percent in the state.
“Some people say that if we don’t do something … we’re on route to the 1990s with criminal behavior. I don’t mean to be an alarmist here, but it’s something we need to pay attention to,” McElvain said.
As law enforcement tries to address crime, it is also trying to adapt to new legislation that has changed everything law enforcement has known for decades, McElvain said.
For more than 50 years, it was OK for law enforcement to detain someone based on reasonable suspicion that they committed a crime, about to commit a crime, or just committed a crime, he said. Now, state legislators say law enforcement must have probable cause.
McElvain said police reform is constant. Departments across the country are always coming up with new policies.
This is different, though.
“I have never, ever, ever in my career seen as many policy changes that I’m pushing out to my staff,” McElvain said. “I hear it on a regular basis. It’s fatigue. ‘Please stop.’ ‘This is killing us.’ ‘How do we keep up?’”
So as the Vancouver Police Department adjusts to the new way of policing, the chief asked the community and community leaders to “support our police.”
Council member Hansen is on board.
“We don’t want to repeat the same mistakes that Portland has made,” Hansen said.