Vancouver police chief hopefuls make their case
5 finalists address accountability, other issues at community forum
By Becca Robbins, Columbian staff writer Published: May 4, 2022, 7:36pm
Five candidates seeking the job as Vancouver’s next police chief fielded questions about their approaches to the job Tuesday night during a question-and-answer session. Community members filled the Bates Center for Educational Leadership in central Vancouver to hear from candidates whom City Manager Eric Holmes selected as finalists after a national search by the firm Bob Murray & Associates. The applicant selected for the job will succeed Chief James McElvain, who is set to retire June 30. Holmes said the city received 14 applicants and originally selected six finalists, but one person dropped out for personal reasons. Tuesday’s Q&A session was one of three scheduled this week, with the final forum Thursday, an invitation-only event with the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce. Holmes said he plans to narrow down the list of candidates to two or three after this week’s sessions and have the finalists sit for additional interviews and screening tests, such as a polygraph exam.
He hopes to announce his final selection next week. Community members submitted questions for the candidates and qualities they’d like to see in the next police chief online and at the event. Candidates were asked about issues including accountability and transparency, rising property crime, youth involvement and school resource officers, and addressing homelessness. The candidates include three assistant police chiefs at the Vancouver Police Department: Michael Lester, Jeffrey Mori and Troy Price. The remaining two are Joel Fitzgerald, the police chief in Waterloo, Iowa, and Andrew Neiman, a captain at the Los Angeles Police Department. Who they are At Tuesday’s forum, Lester noted he has held every rank within the Vancouver Police Department since his hiring in 1992. He touted his work helping McElvain settle into the agency. He said he’s ready for the new challenge of becoming chief. Mori said he came from a family that distrusted law enforcement and, as a kid, he never thought he’d become a police officer. He said that while on the job, he uses some of the lessons he learned playing football. “I was good at protecting people my entire time of playing football. You know how many touchdowns I actually scored? Zero, but I blocked for everybody to score those touchdowns,” he said. “And I got great satisfaction when I was out at night, knowing that I’m protecting other people.”
Price first became a police officer in Chicago. He moved to Vancouver in 1997, and he said he loves the sense of community in the city. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Fitzgerald has been the chief of four departments across the country, including Allentown, Pa., and Missouri City, Texas. He began as chief in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2015 but was fired in 2019 after a confrontation with a union leader at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., according to the Dallas Morning News. The paper also reported he was named as the sole finalist to become Baltimore’s police commissioner, but he withdrew from consideration after the Baltimore Sun reported that his resume overstated his accomplishments in reducing crime in Fort Worth. Neiman was born and raised in California and said his mother didn’t like the idea of him becoming a police officer. He said one of his strengths is getting the kids in the community involved: “Youth, in general, are the key to my style of policing.” Property crime Mori said he doesn’t believe more aggressive policing would be effective in addressing property crime. Instead, he advocated for restorative justice programs with the hope of breaking the pattern of those who reoffend. He noted the success rate of drug courts, saying, “It is one of the most beautiful programs you will ever see, because families get restored, children get restored to their parents, people go back and they start working again. And it’s those types of restorative justice programs that make us better.”
Price also said he’s in favor of connecting people with job training and substance-abuse treatment and other services, instead of just sending them to jail. “As we move forward, what we need to do is be able to identify resources within the community, so that we can offer criminals a choice: We can plug you into resources that will get you the things that you need to be a productive citizen so that you don’t have to do these things,” he said. “The other option is we can send you over to the Clark County Jail, but we don’t want to have to do that.” Fitzgerald said police can’t turn a blind eye to crime and need to take people to jail. “We can’t always blame some of the crimes on mental health. We can’t blame it on being displaced. We have to blame it on what it is,” Fitzgerald said. “And that is the intent to separate you from items that you own or to separate you from loved ones.” Neiman said he found success in Los Angeles training volunteers on some law enforcement tactics, such as using radar guns to report speeding in their neighborhoods.
“We’re never going to have enough police officers to be out there to do everything that needs to be done to prevent crime,” Neiman said. “So we have to develop that relationship with you. We have to have communities who protect their communities by being observant and being willing to report.” Technology is key to Lester’s strategy to curb property crime by identifying the people who are committing the bulk of the crimes. He also hopes to increase community engagement and reporting. Implementing change The three Vancouver assistant chiefs celebrated the progress the department has made in implementing 74 of the 84 changes recommended by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2020. They also agreed on finishing the list. Price is in charge of implementing a body-worn camera program and said he anticipates accomplishing that by the end of this year. He said he hopes that better connecting people with mental health services will reduce the instances of police being called during crises and reduce the number of shootings. Fitzgerald was critical of the pace of the changes. He said it was no secret that body cameras were coming, and programs have been adopted across the country.
Neiman said body cameras can deescalate both an officer and a community member when they know they’re being recorded, and he pushed for the Vancouver agency to “take a hard look” at its training. He noted his lessons from working at the LAPD, an agency he said was sometimes at “the bottom of the barrel” in terms of accountability. Lester said he’d reevaluate some traffic stops that may have been unnecessary and led to escalating an otherwise minor situation. He’d focus on calls where others are in danger, such as drunk drivers or speeders, instead of stops for things such as an expired tag or a dancing doll on a dashboard. “There’s been numerous examples throughout our nation where police contacts went really, really bad and someone lost their life, and it was over a meaningless traffic stop, in my opinion, where it was just for a violation that was not a danger to our community,” he said. All of the candidates said they’d push for officers to spend more time serving the community, especially with kids, outside of their regular shifts. They all also spoke of getting school resource officers back onto campuses. More information about the recruitment process can be found at cityofvancouver.us/chief-recruitment.
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