Small-town police face unique challenges

By Pat Caldwell, Observer correspondent November 06, 2013 09:46 am

La Grande, Ontario, Baker City police have plenty in common when it comes to fighting property crimes

Police in three Eastern Oregon communities tucked along Interstate 84 spend a significant amount of time fighting property crimes, but they also face a sizeable number of incidents that force officers to act as diplomats and negotiators. 

La Grande Police Department Lt. Derick Reddington said often thieves take advantage of trusting residents who leave valuable items in plain view.

“We deal with a lot of thefts from unlocked vehicles, trailers, unattended stuff in front yards or left on porches,” Reddington said.

In Ontario, property crimes also consume a sizeable portion of the city’s police department resources.

“The majority is property crimes, probably theft. Theft cases take a lot of resources,” Ontario Police Chief Mark Alexander said.

In 2012, Alexander said, the OPD handled more than 680 theft-related offenses. By comparison, Alexander’s department processed 65 assault cases in 2012.

“A lot of (theft) is retail related,” Alexander said.

Addictions fuel a lot of the theft crime, Reddington said.

“In most cases, property crimes are the result of people needing a way to continue their habits,” Reddington said.

Baker City Police Chief Wyn Lohner agreed with Reddington.

“Most of it can be connected to drugs,” Lohner said.

Alexander’s department suffers from its geographic location when it comes to the influx of illegal narcotics. Situated at a hub of four major thoroughfares — Interstate 84, U.S. Highway 30, U.S. Highway 20 and U.S Highway 95 — the city on the Oregon/Idaho border often proves to be a key transportation locus for drug traffic.

“(Illegal drugs) are not necessarily staying but they go through. There are efforts being made to stop it but we are situated in an area where it comes in,” he said.

Alexander said his department also deals with a high number of traffic-related incidents, which, just like property crimes, devour resources.

“People running through traffic lights, people pulling out in front of cars, some of it is weather-related,” he said.

Reddington said one key way to cut down on property crimes of all types centers on help from the public.

“The importance we all have is to help be the eyes and ears of the department. If you see something suspicious, call us. You can remain anonymous. That’s perfectly fine. If you hear or see something out of the ordinary, let us know,” he said.

Yet while property crimes — offenses connected to theft, criminal mischief, burglary and shoplifting — gobble up a significant amount of resources for area law enforcement agencies, police also spend a lot of time acting as small-town diplomats in low-intensity disputes between residents, Lohner said. Dealing with city code violations also consumes a large amount of time for police, he said.

“Property crimes make up a vast majority, but cops deal with a lot of civil issues to. You know, the neighbor is playing the music too loud or a couple splits up and there is an issue with the kids. A lot of civil-type matters,” he said.

Reddington said his officers handle civil disputes — of one type or another — constantly.

“We spend an awful lot of time trying to mediate. It is amazing the kind of calls we deal with,” he said.

Alexander agreed that civil disputes play a large role in his department’s crime fighting workload.

“We spend a lot of time mediating personal problems, mediating neighbor, family disputes. A lot of calls are related to people who just can’t seem to get along,” he said.