Vancouver police chief says policies in line with statewide public safety standards
By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published: March 13, 2019, 9:32 PM
Despite a spate of officer-involved shootings over the last month, Vancouver’s police chief says he’s confident the department’s policies are in line with statewide public safety standards and that his officers are following best practices.
Since Feb. 5, the Vancouver Police Department has been involved in four officer-involved shootings — three of them fatal. The recent shootings appear to be the most in one year for the police agency over the last 25 years, a Columbian analysis found.
“I think, for a department of our size, it is a little unusual to have so many back-to-back. I think it is outside the norm,” Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain said in a phone interview Wednesday. “What my experience has told me is, really the only consistency I see, is the behavior of the citizen involved has (caused) this incident to occur. It’s not usual for officers to need to use lethal force when people are cooperative.”
A Columbian analysis of local law enforcement policies on use of force, specifically lethal force, found that the Vancouver Police Department’s policies largely mirror those of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and the Camas and Battle Ground police departments.
In a nutshell, all of the policies say deadly force is necessary when officers need to protect themselves or others from threat of death or serious injury. Deadly force is also permissible to prevent the escape of a fleeing violent felon when there’s probable cause to believe the felon has threatened serious harm or death, or if they are not apprehended poses the threat of harm to officers or others.
Each policy speaks to the reasonableness of the amount of force used, based on the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time.
“We’re pretty confident that our policy is up to date. We are looking at our policy on a regular basis,” McElvain said. “Are we specifically going to pull out our policy because we’ve had a couple of officer-involved shootings? Not necessarily.”
Some community members, however, are questioning the department’s policies and calling for officers to wear body cameras. An online petition for body-worn cameras is circulating on Facebook.
Adam Kravitz, founder of Vancouver-based homeless advocacy organization Outsiders Inn, says he’s been vocal about the recent police shootings and in sharing the online petition. He said a number of local organizations have joined forces to begin an open dialogue with the police department.
“Basically, it feels like our voices are not being heard and that we need to do more and more and raise our voices even more. … They are about public safety; there’s a large portion of our community that doesn’t feel safe calling the police,” he said.
Kravitz also expressed concerns following other media reports quoting McElvain as saying the department plans to “stay the course.”
“It’s the police department’s responsibility to hear the public’s concerns, and what I heard from the top official in an interview the other day is that he’s not concerned with what we’re saying,” Kravitz said.
McElvain told The Columbian his comments were taken out of context. His department is in the process of getting its entire policy manual online for the public to view, he said.
“I’m one that really believes that we work for the benefit of our community. With that said, how closely can we be in step with what our community desires from its police department? As you become a much larger and diverse community, how do you come to a consensus on what the community wants?” McElvain said. “Law enforcement is tasked with looking at what are the best practices for our profession — part of it is maintaining a good relationship and communication with the community.”
As for body-worn cameras, McElvain said he’s not opposed to the idea; “it’s a technology that is continuing to expand in the policing profession.”
However, he said, body-worn cameras are expensive, particularly in maintaining data, and time consuming in terms of public disclosure requests and establishing the right policies. There are also privacy issues, McElvain said. For instance, officers need to be mindful of the people captured on the recording, he said, especially when investigating a domestic violence case or sexual assault.
“It’s super easy to say, as a philosophy, we should all wear body-worn cameras, but with that, comes a great deal of expense and policy implications,” he said.
This isn’t the first time a conversation about body-worn cameras has come up, McElvain said, adding that it’s been on his to-do list.
“I think we’ll get there at one point, but it’s not a decision you make a knee-jerk reaction to,” he said.
If there was a tremendous push from the community for police to have body-worn cameras, McElvain said, he would explore that option and put together a brief of what it would entail.
Outsiders Inn, with other concerned parties, plans to draft a formal statement over the next month to present to the Vancouver City Council.
“We’re going to try from the top down and work from that direction,” Kravitz said.
In a prepared statement from the city, in which Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, City Manager Eric Holmes and McElvain are quoted, Holmes said the city is open to hearing community feedback.
“We are saddened by these recent tragedies, and the city is committed to listening to our community’s voices and concerns. I understand there are many questions surrounding these incidents, but it is vital that we exercise patience while waiting for the investigations to be completed. We will communicate information when it becomes available,” Holmes said.
Holmes told The Columbian in an interview that he believes “Chief McElvain is providing the right leadership and steady hand and emphasis on training, transparency and cooperation in the investigations.”
Michael Eugene Pierce, 29, was homeless, family says
By Jerzy Shedlock, Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published: March 1, 2019, 8:45 PM
The man fatally shot by Vancouver police late Thursday afternoon, after reportedly brandishing two firearms, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as a teenager but had stopped taking his prescribed medication, according to family members.
Family identified the man as 29-year-old Michael Eugene Pierce, who was born in Oklahoma but had been living in Washington for the past decade.
Pierce’s aunt Beth Brittain said Friday that he had stopped taking his medication a couple years back because he said it made him “feel like a zombie.” He once told his mother he heard voices telling him to kill himself, Brittain said.
Officers were called about 4:45 p.m. Thursday for a report of an armed person near West 12th and Jefferson streets west of downtown Vancouver. Shortly after, officers yelled that shots had been fired and said the man was down, with a firearm by his feet, according to emergency radio traffic monitored at The Columbian.
“Multiple callers called in saying a man was waving his guns and pointing them at people,” Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said.
Two officers fired their weapons; neither was injured. The officers have been placed on critical incident leave, standard department protocol in an officer-involved shooting. They likely will not be identified until Monday, Kapp said.
Joe Newsome, who witnessed the shooting, said he had just gotten off work in the area and was walking home when he saw a man holding a gun, screaming at passing vehicles. The man was waving the firearm, Newsome said, and pointing it at his own head. Other witnesses said the man had two firearms.
About 30 people gathered Friday night at the site where Pierce died for a candlelight vigil. Spray-painted epitaphs covered the street: “You are loved.” “Michael RIP.” “Love you.”
Kyla Houchens was a close friend of Pierce’s, she said. He called her “mom,” and the two spent hours together at the recently-opened Vancouver Navigation Center on Grand Boulevard.
Houchens and others at the vigil said Pierce’s guns were brightly colored pellet guns; he treated them as toys. When he put the guns to his head, it was a call for help, she said.
“Today is a commemoration of Michael’s life, and a day of accountability for everyone else,” Houchens said.
A home in Vancouver
Pierce was born in Sapulpa, Okla., and spent his formative years in Seminole, Okla., where he attended school. He was the second youngest among four siblings — three brothers and a sister, Brittain said.
Pierce left home when he was 18 or 19 years old. He hitchhiked across the country and settled in Washington. His family is unsure what led him to Vancouver.
Pierce’s mother, according to Brittain, had him evaluated when he was 7 years old due to odd behaviors, which included harming himself. Doctors put Pierce on Ritalin, and despite his mental health issues, Pierce had a fair upbringing, according to his aunt.
“He was the sweetest little boy,” Brittain said.
In 2008, Pierce’s older brother John went missing in Idaho. Authorities found his foot in a boot, but the family never learned what truly happened. Brittain said she believes the traumatic event is part of the reason Pierce started wandering.
The family was unfamiliar with his current living situation, she said. Pierce would show up sporadically. He would sometimes call from the bus stop in Seminole and ask his mom for a ride.
Joan Wickenhagen, the grandmother of Pierce’s 5-year-old daughter, said Pierce was homeless and had been couch surfing for the past several years, after a conviction that resulted in jail time. He would infrequently visit Wickenhagen’s Vancouver home, she said, to visit his daughter and her mother, Mollie Wickenhagen.
“He didn’t come around a lot,” the elder Wickenhagen said. “He tried to be good. He loved all of us, especially (his daughter).”
Mollie Wickenhagen remembered the father of her child as a “different sort,” a book nerd who loved to fix things. He struggled, she said, and could be “irrational” and “all over the place.” But he had a good heart, she said, and love for his daughter and the family he had built in Vancouver.
“He always found home here,” she said.
It was a beautiful gathreing of people on the longest night of the year for an outdoor candlelight service to remember & honor our unhoused neighbors who have died this year.
By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published: December 21, 2018, 10:20 PM
On the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, a crowd gathered outside St. Paul Lutheran Church in Vancouver to remember homeless people who died this year.
During Friday night’s annual vigil, nearly two dozen people with local connections were recognized through song, prayer, poems and calls for action. Similar services took place around the country on what can be a particularly cold night. Friday’s low temperature was around 35 degrees in Vancouver, according to the National Weather Service.
As an employee of Council for the Homeless, Caroline Lopez said she gets to know people who are searching for housing; one of those people was Chris Breitenbach, who died this summer.
“He was just so sweet. When I think of him all I can remember is love,” Lopez said to the crowd gathered in front of St. Paul’s steps. The church hosts a winter shelter for men. “All he wanted … was to be with his son, to be housed with his son.”
The mother of Breitenbach’s son, Denice Christie, also died this year.
Lopez offered a Buddhist prayer about compassion and led the group through a meditation.
“We’re here tonight to remember people — brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters — lost from our community in the past year,” said City Councilor Ty Stober.
He said Vancouver has dedicated employees who work tirelessly to build trust with homeless people, but he said he was embarrassed about information revealed in Friday’s Columbian article that showed stricter enforcement of the city’s camping and public storage ordinances.
“As a council we’ve attempted to exhibit respect for all residents no matter their income bracket or housing status,” he said. “While our laws are strict, our directive to staff has been to approach everyone with compassion and empathy.”
He said that hasn’t happened in the last few weeks and he’s working to correct conditions. He acknowledged the recent opening of the Vancouver Navigation Center, where people can come in out of the elements and take care of their needs during the day, as well as the opening of housing projects such as Meriwether Place and the upcoming Bridgeview Resource Center.
Stober choked up as he said: “If you live outside I want you to know I see you, I hear you and I will use my power so others will see and hear you as well. My blessing for everyone tonight is that we may all feel some measure of love and we may all feel some worth and we may all feel some hope.”
Homeless advocate and founder of Outsiders Inn, Adam Kravitz, said he knew nine people whose names were said at the vigil. He said he was thinking of the possible names that could be recited at next year’s vigil, people who may never be housed for whatever reason, whether due to mental health, addiction or not finding success in the system.
“I don’t want to know that I knew this was going to happen. I don’t want to stand by and go ‘I knew I was going to be talking about this person,'” Kravitz said.
He said he would like to see a more trauma-informed approached when it comes to housing people who have issues with mental health and addiction, as well as an end to division and hate. The Columbian article “shows how deep the injustice goes,” Kravitz said.
“They have no bathroom, they have no water, they have no warmth, and there are jokes about hunting them. That should make you enraged,” Kravitz said. “Stand up and say ‘no more.'”
The vigil closed with the crowd singing “Amazing Grace.”
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