How the Vancouver Police Department uses force drew scrutiny from community members at a meeting Wednesday night at Clark College.
The public forum is part of an outside review into the department’s use of force policies and training.
The review comes after a string of four Vancouver police shootings in February and March. Three were fatal and a majority involved people of color. Two of the three fatal shootings have been ruled justified by the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, including a 16-year-old boy who was shot while wielding a knife.
The prosecutor hasn't released a report yet on the shooting of 43-year-old Carlos Hunter, an African American man who was shot and killed by officers on Mar. 7 during a traffic stop.
The officer-involved shootings prompted the city to sign a $98,750 contract with the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, a nonprofit law enforcement think tank based in Washington D.C. The national organization has completed more than 250 studies on agencies across the country over the last four decades, according to a release by the Vancouver Police Department.
As part of the review, a three-person team from PERF spent the week in Vancouver interviewing officers, riding along in patrol cars and moderating Wednesday’s public meeting.
“Tonight is an opportunity to learn and listen from you,” said Tom Wilson, a former law enforcement officer and director of PERF’s Center For Applied Research and Management.
“What you say is important to us, we want to take this in,” Wilson said, before turning questions over to the audience.
About 50 people filled the auditorium Wednesday night at Clark College’s Foster Auditorium. They demanded more police accountability and transparency on the shootings.
“We’re talking about lives lost, never to be seen again. If your report can’t stop that, then your report means nothing to us,” said Vancouver resident Cindi Fisher.
Fisher said she was unhappy with the police chief’s decision to go forward with an outside agency without first consulting community members. She was also dismayed with the department’s recent use of force, calling it excessive and targeted toward communities of color.
“It’s my community. And I have children, I have sons, daughters. They’re not safe,” said Fisher.
The audience included family members of individuals who had been killed by police officers.
One of them was Pam Hunter, the sister of Carlos Hunter, who was fatally shot by police in March. Police reports show multiple officers fired 16 rounds into Hunter.
“It’s not fair. And until they tell me and show me why they killed my brother I’ll just have to keep showing up to these things,” said Hunter. “I’m not trying to get upset and battle with the police, but I want accountability.”
Others were critical of PERF itself, the agency selected for the review. The national organization is made up of police professionals and many former law enforcement officers.
“I’m feeling a little bit skeptical. It feels a little bit like law enforcement investigating law enforcement,” said Danielle Jokela.
Wilson responded that “the proof is in our work” and stressed that the final report would be a fair, unbiased review of the department’s use of force protocol and training.
The testimony grew heated at times, with some people calling out Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain for his initial stance on body worn cameras. McElvain has previously told OPB he was not considering body or dashboard cameras, citing staffing and financial resources.
McElvain says he’s now actively pursuing a body-worn camera program and has assigned an officer to research benefits, data storage, privacy concerns and a cost analysis. City Manager Eric Holmes said the city will engage the public and present to Vancouver City Council early next year.
Chief McElvain closed the meeting by maintaining that his department is well-trained, but could always get better.
“I believe we can improve upon what we do,” said McElvain. “I am committed to following through with this.”
The PERF review is expected to take nine months to complete, with a final report including recommendations presented to Chief McElvain and city leadership.