Pat Garrett, OSSA President & Washington County Sheriff
One way to characterize the relationship between a sheriff ’s office and the community is its’ interdependence. A sheriff ’s office needs a community engaged in public safety, and the community needs a capable sheriff ’s office. For the relationship to work, it must be underpinned by trust, collaboration, and transparency. Today, perhaps nowhere is that strong sheriff ’s office/community relationship more appreciated than in Josephine County. I want to congratulate Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel, his team, and Josephine County residents for their good work and recent public safety victory.
The story is too familiar in Oregon. Faced with declining federal funding through reduced timber receipts, Josephine County Sheriff ’s Office funding was slashed, and their ability to “Conserve the Peace” was in great jeopardy. One of the biggest problems was insufficient jail space. Sheriff Daniel and his team were faced with crushing attrition, lagging equipment, scarce training opportunities and a booming marijuana industry which provides almost no support to law enforcement while it increases calls for service. During Sheriff Daniel’s past two years in office, he and his team committed to new and rigorous professional standards, transparency, fiscal responsibility, and public education about their mission. As Sheriff Daniel told me, “These issues have not been at the forefront for many years. Historically our citizens were held hostage by a federal funding stream and in part by their own Sheriff ’s Office. No more. We took an oath to serve, and for sure we will do the best to our ability. We are proudly Conservators of the Peace.”
Facing a 17-year history of intermittent and unsuccessful levy attempts, Sheriff Daniel proposed a five-year modest 84 cent per $1,000 assessed property value levy to fund adult jail services. His Board of County Commissioners added $0.09 for juvenile detention services but nothing more. Everyone at the Sheriff ’s Office worked hard and demonstrated a renewed commitment to their community which provided voters the necessary confidence to pass the levy. Levy funding will add staffing to permit 55 more jail beds. The added capacity means whenever someone is arrested, the jail will be his or her first stop. While levy passage is temporary, it’s a victory for public safety in Josephine County, the community, and their Sheriff ’s Office.
Drive five hours north, and you will find similar good news at the Columbia County Sheriff ’s Office. Under Sheriff Dickerson’s leadership, a levy renewal to restore funding for the jail passed by 13 points in 2016. Getting there wasn’t easy. A jail levy in 2013 was unsuccessful, largely due to voter uncertainty about the remaining county budget. Meanwhile, dwindling funding lowered jail beds to 25 and, predictably, property crimes rose. The most troublesome increase was burglaries. As Sheriff Dickerson told me, “Criminals understand if there’s no jail time, they will keep at it.” The absence of meaningful jail space or criminal sanctions also produced a significant increase in warrants for failure to appear in court, which makes the jail revolving-door situation worse. The Sheriff convinced county leaders to put the levy question to voters again in 2014 with the clear message that funding would go to the county’s only jail to increase the number of jail beds. Hard work by Sheriff Dickerson, his leaders, and the county yielded a win, and the sheriff was able to rebuild jail capacity. Columbia County saw property crimes reduced as jail beds were restored. In 2016 voters renewed the existing jail levy by a significant margin.
Drive south two and a half hours to Eugene; you will find Sheriff Byron Trapp and his team just renewed a five-year levy to continue funding for the jail and youth services. Following several years of devastating budget cuts and personnel layoffs, the Lane County Sheriff ’s Office jail capacity had fallen to just 125 beds for local offenders in a county of 360,000 residents. Many of the 507 jail beds sat empty while the jail released 5,129 inmates early in fiscal year 2012/13. Many of those released early were pre-trial defendants being held on Measure 11 and other violent felony crimes. In 2012 the Lane County jail was forced to release three pre-trial defendants being held on homicide charges due to lack of funded capacity in the county jail.
In response, Lane County voters passed a five-year local option levy in 2013 to fund jail and youth services operations. Funding from the levy increased jail capacity over 250% and doubled detention and treatment capacity in youth services. Early releases from the jail have been cut by 63% and no inmate being held on Measure 11, or violent felony charges has been released early since July 1, 2013. While empty beds remain in the county jail, levy funding has restored jail capacity for local offenders to 317, the highest capacity in 14 years. Levy funding has also provided for substantial increases in mental health services in the jail to address the rising jail population suffering from mental illness at some level, most recently identified at 60% of inmates.
Lane County voters were asked this spring to renew the levy a year early to ensure uninterrupted critical jail and youth services funding. Lane County residents responded by passing the levy renewal at 73%. Sheriff Trapp extends his sincere gratitude to the community for their confidence in and support of the Lane County Sheriff ’s Office. Lane County voters clearly understand the value of a capable Sheriff ’s Office with sufficient jail capacity to meet the county’s needs.
With dedicated men and women serving their communities, sheriffs across Oregon are working hard to develop and sustain a special, interdependent relationship with their communities. Too often this important work must endure times of dwindling resources or other considerable challenges. Unfortunately, even when a sheriff and the team do everything right, the prospects of levy funding are doubtful, though not impossible. For Sheriffs Daniel, Dickerson and Trapp, these modest, temporary levies do nothing to restore what are today meager patrol services in their communities. Sheriffs in every Oregon county need your help. Tell your commissioner or legislator that adequate sheriff ’s office funding is critical for safe communities. I encourage you to get involved with your sheriff ’s office. Whether as a reserve deputy, youth search and rescue explorer, in administrative support or other ways, wonderful opportunities exist for you to help and get to know your sheriff ’s office. Thank you for your support.