The Vancouver Police Department will have to “rethink, redesign, and retool” in order to best use its limited resources, said Police Chief Clifford Cook during an hour-long update before the Vancouver City Council on Aug. 15.
Cook listed many of the significant cutbacks the department has had to make since 2008, including the elimination of key detective positions and a 40 percent reduction of civilian staff.
In addition, 23 of the department’s 192 sworn officer positions are funded through limited-term grants and contracts due to expire in one to two years. Cook said there have recent efforts at the federal level to cut or significantly curtail grant funding for local law enforcement, and he expects the trend to get worse.
“We’ve got to quit relying on grants to provide core services,” Cook said. “We’ve got to find a solution for that.”
The department’s 2011 general fund budget is $30.2 million, with grants and contracts adding about $1.8 million more. This compares to a 2009 general budget of more than $31.4 million, with $1 million in grants and contracts. Cook said the department must find ways to work smarter to meet its goals.
“We want to develop a department that has a culture of continuous innovation,” said Cook. “We realize change is inevitable.”
Even with budget deficits, the department is still effectively responding to 911 calls, Cook said. The average response time to a priority one emergency call in 2010 was four minutes, 27 seconds, well within the five-minute threshold. However, such calls amounted to only 2 percent of total calls.
Response times to priority 2 emergency calls averaged almost a minute more than the seven-minute goal.
Cook added, however, that while response times have traditionally been the measurement for police effectiveness, he doesn’t think this is a realistic expectation in Vancouver, given current staffing levels.
For example, without a dedicated property crimes unit, Cook said it can take at least a day for an officer to respond to a property crime call where no suspect is present and no workable leads are apparent. He pointed out that property crimes in Vancouver increased 9.4 percent from 2009 to 2010, contrary to national trends. As such, he believes efforts to reduce crime are the answer.
“I think our concern should be focused on what did we fail to see as a police department before that crime was committed?” Cook said. “Was that individual scouting the neighborhood? Was he out walking? Was he knocking on doors? Those are the kinds of things we need to take a hard look at.”
Councilor Larry Smith asked Cook whether the department had made significant cuts in training. Cook explained that the department has shifted away from large-group training efforts to one that customizes training to smaller groups of officers and individuals.
Councilor Jack Burkman also questioned a 2010 city survey Cook presented that reported only 55 percent of Vancouver citizens felt safe in their neighborhood at night. Burkman wanted to see a more detailed breakdown of citizen attitudes from different sectors of the city.
“Some areas people might feel more safe and then different part of town even worse than this,” he said. “I have a hard time using this broad of a brush to see the city response.”
Cook said the department did have more specific survey information that it had analyzed internally, but had not prepared it for the council. He hopes to facilitate greater conversations with community members to learn what their priorities are concerning police services, but did not specify what those efforts would involve.
“I want to hear from this community: What it is they want, what police services we provide, how they’re provided, whether they really care if it is a uniform, or if they just want someone to come out and get that report?” Cook said.
Mayor Timothy Leavitt agreed that that VPD couldn’t depend on external funding sources, but said there are no plans to increase the city budget for police.
“The truth is, there’s no silver bullet to solve the resource problem,” Leavitt said. “This council has made a decision that right now, additional operating revenues are not appropriate, because we do need to reengineer how grassroots, local government is delivering services to our citizens.”
For its part, Cook said the VPD has reduced overtime costs from $1.8 million in 2007 when he became chief to $1.1 million, or 4 percent of the budget, this year.
Cook acknowledged that while the budget crunch is causing a fair amount of anxiety and frustration among Vancouver police officers, they are delivering excellent service.
“I’m still astounded at the level and quality of work that the men and women of this department provide to this community in spite of all the challenges they face,” Cook said.