Following four Vancouver police shootings — three of which were fatal — the city has ordered an independent assessment of the police department’s use-of-force protocols and training, and will explore the possibility of a body-worn and dash camera program.
The city entered into a contract with the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit, national law enforcement membership organization, to conduct a use-of-force assessment, according to an Aug. 1 email from City Manager Eric Holmes to the city council.
The nonprofit provides management services, technical support and executive-level education for law enforcement agencies.
“(Police Executive Research Forum) helps to improve the delivery of police services through the exercise of strong national leadership, public debate of police and criminal justice issues, and research and police development,” Holmes’ email to the city council reads.
Community tensions ran high following the spate of shootings, which occurred between Feb. 5 and March 7. Two of the fatalities involved people of color and the third involved a homeless man previously diagnosed with schizophrenia. The shootings prompted an online petition calling for police body-worn cameras, an impassioned Vancouver Neighborhood Alliance meeting and public forum, and a “March for Justice” rally.
Initially, Police Chief James McElvain said he was not planning an official review of the department’s use-of-force policies. But in a reversal weeks later, he said he was considering having the Police Executive Research Forum review the department’s use-of-force policies.
Community feedback has ebbed since the shootings, McElvain said Thursday, but police routinely meet with groups such as Vancouver’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and League of United Latin American Citizens, who were interested in keeping the conversation going.
McElvain said there are a couple reasons his department wants an outside assessment of its use-of-force policies.
“While we think we’re doing a good job, we are always looking at how we do business — whether through our policies, training or procedures. If we can be providing better practices to our community, we want to ensure we are employing those,” McElvain said. “The second reason is we heard from the community they wanted to understand what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. This sounded like an opportune moment to be able to review how we do it from an outside perspective, an impartial perspective versus us saying, ‘We think we’re doing a good job.’ ”
Components of the review
McElvain identified the Police Executive Research Forum “as a likely candidate organization to do this work for the city based on his knowledge and understanding of their depth of experience in matters such as this,” Holmes wrote in an email to The Columbian. The group was hired, however, following a competitive request for proposals process. Three groups submitted proposals, McElvain said.
“The Police Executive Research Forum has a very strong reputation in our country, being able to impartially review what police departments do and fair about how they approach their process,” McElvain said.
The organization will conduct its review for a flat fee of $98,750, according to the group’s proposal.
According to Holmes, the assessment will focus on:
• Reviewing the department’s organizational culture surrounding use of force.
• Reviewing the department’s policies and procedures on use of force.
• Reviewing the reporting, documentation, and supervisory roles and responsibilities in use of force incidents.
• Reviewing the department’s training, tactics and tools.
• Analyzing and summarizing the department’s use-of-force incidents and case files.
• Evaluating existing verbal de-escalation training.
McElvain said his department has already sent the organization a series of reports to review on use of force, as well as its policies and procedures. Police Executive Research Forum staff will be in town the week of Sept. 9 to conduct meetings — some one-on-one and others with groups — to include everybody in the department, as well as city councilors and the city manager, to get feedback from various perspectives.
The Chief’s Diversity Advisory Team — which includes community members representing communities including Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, Slavic, Native American, Islamic, Sikh, African American, Vietnamese, Korean and Jewish, as well as organizations that serve people throughout Vancouver — will be used as a focus group. The Police Executive Research Forum will also meet with the department’s training unit to address what officers do and how they do it, McElvain said.
The organization will come back with recommendations for the department; the entire review process will take roughly nine months.
In the meantime, the department has been researching best practices, program development, and cost and labor implications for deploying body-worn and dash camera programs. McElvain said best practices show body-worn and dash camera programs complement each other and enhance officers’ overall performance.
“It provides for that transparency to what your local police department is doing, it increases the trust factor in the community and our credibility to the community,” he said of police camera programs.
Assistant Chief Troy Price, with a small work group, has been looking into body-worn and dash camera programs. McElvain said Price is preparing to draft a preliminary report on the costs.
Holmes told the city council that establishing a camera program will “entail significant start-up and ongoing operating costs.”
In an email to The Columbian, he said there’s also more to consider.
“While costs are certainly a major consideration, introducing a camera program also raises issues of privacy, community relationships, data stewardship and officer concerns, all of which are all factors we will need to consider and balance,” he wrote. “There are also a range of expectations around each of these facets we will need to take into account as we consider this tool as a way to better serve the community.”
Holmes said the goal is to hold a general work program in the next several weeks “that will allow us to engage the city council in a decision in time for the 2021-22 biennial budget.”
But in response to Holmes’ email to the city council, Councilor Erik Paulsen wrote: “The feedback I’m hearing from citizens specific to body-worn cameras is that the city has been slow to respond/take action. The time line you outline in your update supports this perspective.”
Paulsen said he understands there will be significant costs to consider for a camera program but thinks “it would be helpful, and show better responsiveness to citizen concerns, if we were to come forward with a preliminary estimate of start-up and operating costs as soon as possible.”
His response added, “At least this would help citizens understand with concrete numbers why council may be slow to move forward, if at all.”