The City of Union is set to begin taking a serious look at improving its law enforcement situation.

The Union City Council, via consensus, decided Saturday to make developing a long-term solution for its law enforcement void a major goal in 2019.

Union’s law enforcement picture has been clouded since late 2016 after the city did not renew its contract with the Union County Sheriff’s Office for enhanced services. Union still receives basic services from the Union County Sheriff’s Office, such as responding to emergencies and periodic patrols, but the number of hours provided for patrols is much less.

“I truly believe we need to think outside the box (for addressing this issue),” said first-year City Administrator Doug Wiggins.

Wiggins said he has been exploring the possibility of having Union pay a police department from a larger city to provide a law enforcement officer for Union. Wiggins said the La Grande Police Department’s budget would not allow this and the Baker City Police Department does not have the manpower needed to help Union.

Union Mayor Leonard Flint said he believes it would be difficult to find a police officer via this means because fewer people are following law enforcement career paths today.

Wiggins was asked by councilors if citizens could conduct community patrols to address the lack of law enforcement. He said such patrols would mean the city could face a greater liability risk, especially if it organized the patrols and encouraged citizens to participate in them.

“I would be very cautious about community watch groups unless we added to our insurance,” the city administrator said.

Councilor Walt Brookshire said Union had community patrols many years ago and they took a toll on those participating in it. He said some volunteers would be up much of the driving and then be exhausted when they got to work the next day.

Several councilors asked if it would be feasible for the City of Union to hire its own police officer. Wiggins said that the expense would be high. He said the cost would be about $250,000 the first year and about $125,000 a year after that for salary, benefits and other expenses.

This, according to Observer archives, would be significantly more than what Union was paying for enhanced services from the Union County Sheriff’s Office. The city paid $85,000 a year for 138 patrol hours a month under the contract that expired Oct. 1, 2016.

A second drawback would be that the city would likely draw only inexperienced officers. Wiggins explained that experienced police officers tend to gravitate toward larger cities, which pay more. He said young officers often start in small towns and then leave for larger cities when they have the experience needed to land higher-paying law enforcement jobs.

“We might become a stepping stone,” Wiggins said.

See complete story in Monday's Observer

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