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The cost of policing in Vancouver and Clark County

Amid calls for defunding law enforcement, local agencies explain their budgets, where the money goes

When Vancouver police officer Tyler Chavers was asked if he thought he’d be working mainly with the homeless population near the end of his career, his response was immediate.

“No,” said Chavers, lead and only officer in Vancouver Police Department’s Homeless Assistance Response Team.

The team, aka HART, is new as of January. The police department and city were actively recruiting more people to join, but hiring has halted across city departments due to COVID-19.

As Chavers drove to various homeless camps in Vancouver, he said most people want officers to handle immediate problems. Police want to give new strategies a try, but such efforts can get lost in ongoing social ills and unexpected events like a pandemic. It’s difficult to divorce the two directives, he said.

“There are people who think that responding to everything is achievable by defunding or reallocating our funds. From a citizen’s standpoint, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea. The question becomes: Is the department healthy to begin with? If so, then yes. In the long term, it’d be a good idea,” the officer said.

The budgets of Clark County’s two largest law enforcement agencies have increased by millions of dollars over the past decade, and the rise is unlikely to reverse despite calls to defund police departments nationwide.

There have been calls locally to reform or force changes in the work carried out by the Vancouver Police Department and Clark County Sheriff’s Office, but proponents here have not recommended dismantling the agencies.

Still, it begs the question: How much money are the agencies receiving, and how are those funds being spent?

Budgets and bureaus

The Vancouver Police Department’s budget for 2020 was $57.2 million. That’s 33 percent of the city’s total general fund. The money pays for 234 uniformed officers and 63 civilian positions, according to data provided by city of Vancouver Financial and Management Services.

In 2010, VPD’s budget totaled $32 million, about 24 percent of the city’s general fund. At that time, the department employed 200 uniformed officers and 21 civilians, according to the data.

Because patrol officers make up the largest bureau of the police department, with more than 140 officers and civilian workers, it’s the most expensive, said spokeswoman Kim Kapp. Administration and training is the second largest expense, and investigations and the special operations bureau is the third-most costly, said Mike Githens, the department’s logistics and finance supervisor. The costs are largely based on the number of staff in each bureau.

Salaries and benefits, including health care premiums, are 73 percent of the entire budget, said Githens.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office budget this year was about $65 million. It used to receive its budget biennially, and for 2009-10, it was $96.6 million, making the 2010 budget roughly $48.3 million, said the county’s Budget Manager Emily Zwetzig.

Currently, 42 percent of the budget is put toward enforcement — patrol, specialty units, investigations and anything residents would generally associate with traditional boots-on-the-ground police work — while another 40 percent goes into corrections, which includes the operation of the Clark County Jail, according to data provided by the sheriff’s office.

“Those are our two main functions, law enforcement and running a jail. Pretty much everything else supports those two things,” said Darin Rouhier, finance manager for the sheriff’s office.

Thirteen percent of the budget goes to the civil matters and support bureau, and the remaining 5 percent pays for administrative services.

The sheriff’s office also breaks down its budget into “noncontrollable” and “controllable” components. The former, put simply, is payroll. Like Vancouver police, 73 percent, or nearly three-fourths of the budget, goes to paying 416 full-time equivalent staff, Rouhier said. There are 148 sworn deputy positions, according to the sheriff’s data. The total number of staff 10 years ago was 415.

The remaining 23 percent of expenses deemed controllable is doled out to the following, in order from more costly to less expensive: inmate medical services, overtime and premium pay, vehicle fleet expenses, dispatch fees, technology expenses and kitchen and food expenses for the jail. There are eight other categories that cost the agency fewer dollars, including inmate supplies, uniforms and capital projects.

“The term ‘controllable,’ don’t take that literally. We don’t have control over a lot of it,” said Rouhier.

“Before COVID-19, the jail had an average of 750 inmates. When those inmates are in our custody, we’re obligated by law to provide any and all necessary medical care. Those services need to be available 24/7, because we run this place 24/7,” said Undersheriff John Chapman.

Overtime is a given in the criminal justice business, Chapman said. It’s unavoidable, because things like SWAT call-outs, late-night investigations and guarding injured or sick inmates at the hospital, which requires two deputies, are not optional, he said.

Increasing costs

Salary and benefits drive the increasing cost of the Vancouver Police Department, said Githens.

These costs have steadily increased over the past five years, and the department has increased its staff. There have also been modest wage adjustments approved by the Vancouver City Council over the same time, Githens said.

“This is a bit complicated to answer,” Kapp said of the increase. “Certainly, an increase in staffing and related equipment costs (vehicles, safety equipment, radios, etc.) account for the majority of the increase in the budget. Also, negotiated pay and benefits account for a portion of the budget over a 10-year period, as personnel costs account for much of the overall budget.”

In 2010, the police department was authorized to employ 201 sworn officers and 36 civilians. Three years later, the authorized number of positions was reduced to 189 officers and to 22.5 civilians due to the Great Recession, Kapp said. Then, in 2017, the department ended its contract for records services with Clark County, which accounts for 23 civilian positions, Kapp said.

The sheriff’s office said all of its budget increase in the past decade can be attributed to six major budget changes.

First, base wages have increased 27 percent, or 2.7 percent annually, over that time period, according to its data.

The second driver of cost is employee benefits, a 56 percent increase over the past decade, with an annual growth rate of 4.6 percent.

The third increase is due to a change in 2011, when Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency dispatch fees were added to the sheriff’s office’s budget for the first time.

The fourth change was to premium pay, or overtime, which accounts for $1.3 million of the 10-year increase. Most of that increase happened this year when, for the first time, the county decided to put premium pay in the budget at the beginning of the year, instead of at the end of the year.

The fifth and sixth budget changes that are increasing costs are inmate medical services and fleet and technology charges, respectively. The price of caring for inmates increased 22 percent over the decade while fleet and tech costs jumped 85 percent, according to the data.

“When we get down to it, it’s almost entirely inflation, because we haven’t added staff. We haven’t erected buildings. We haven’t added vehicles. We haven’t added a lot of things,” Chapman said.

Calls to defund

The months of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody have prompted a wide response about how to curtail police violence. Some have called for redesignating money in law enforcement budgets for reforms; others have argued that defunding, even abolishing, agencies would be the best option.

Shareefah Hoover, chair of the NAACP Vancouver Legal Redress Committee, said the local organization has not taken an official stance on defunding or abolishing local law enforcement. For any community that decision should turn — at least in part — on credible data, Hoover said.

“If the credible data for a given community says that defunding or abolishing police departments or other law-enforcement agencies is the answer, it’s important the community be democratically empowered to take action on that. Law enforcement agencies are not sacrosanct; they are government entities that serve at the will of the people — not the other way around,” Hoover said.

The county’s current model of policing is not working and is in dire need of reform, and NAACP Vancouver is committed to helping make that happen, Hoover said.

Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens President Ed Hamilton Rosales said it should be up to the community to decide how local law enforcement is funded, and Vancouver’s recent listening session on race and police brutality have shown there are varying opinions between residents and the city’s leaders about police services. Change locally does not need to be as drastic as outright defunding the police department, Hamilton Rosales said, but police should realign their priorities.

“We don’t want to defund the police department. We want to make sure that it’s funded effectively as possible to do the job they’re being asked to do. But that job requires that they open their minds to good policing for all of the citizenry, not just for certain individuals,” Hamilton Rosales said.

He said he was also surprised by the city’s approval of a contract with the union representing the top-ranking employees in the police department last week. As of May 21 (the contract’s effective date), the lowest-paid police administrator earned $9,463 a month and the highest-paid earned $12,653 per month. At the end of the contract, salaries will range from $10,235 to $13,686 per month. Hamilton Rosales said the leaders’ salaries are well above the average annual income in Clark County and shows that “some pork needs to be trimmed.”

Undersheriff Chapman acknowledged that the sheriff’s office has a large budget, but he argued that it fights for every dollar.

“When you start looking at what you can actually cut before getting to staff, it’s not a lot,” Chapman said.

There are 0.64 deputies for every 1,000 county residents the sheriff’s office serves, according to its data. There are fewer deputies for every resident when compared to most other agencies, such as the Portland Police Bureau, Vancouver police, Washington County, Ore., and Spokane counties.

Rouhier, the sheriff’s finance manager, pointed to a survey published last month by Pew Research Center that shows little support for reducing spending on policing, among other findings, such as that the majority of the public favors giving civilians the power to sue officers for misconduct. But the survey found that only 25 percent of Americans say spending on policing in their area should be decreased.

“I think it shows there’s a recognition that you need to fund all other societal support services to relieve pressure, and defunding (police) as a way to pay for it isn’t realistic,” Rouhier said.

Kapp, with Vancouver police, said decisions have been made over the past several decades to use the criminal justice system to address mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, and “every other traditionally, noncriminal social problem, then blame the police for not handling these issues well.”

This has never been the role of the police, Kapp said, as they have not been trained or appropriately equipped to be effective. For many years now, law enforcement administrators have argued that we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of this dilemma, she said.

“The police have a role to play when the law is broken. However, to simply criminalize certain behaviors … that are best served by medical and social programs has stretched the police so thin that we cannot provide appropriate follow-up investigation to traditional crime violations,” Kapp said.

Jerzy Shedlock: 360-735-4522; jerzy.shedlock@columbian.com; twitter.com/jerzyms


Source: https://www.columbian.com

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