LGPD sees increase in charges

The La Grande Police Department reports there have been increases in crime over the last several years.

“When I sat down and looked through (the statistics), the thing that stood out to me, believe it or not, is we have had an enormous increase in crimes against another person,” LGPD Chief Brian Harvey said. “If you look at most of the trends in the area, (the crime rate) is relatively stable. There’s not a giant change. However, crimes against others — which includes mental (health) holds, warrant arrests, failure to register as a sex offender — those are the key ones (that have increased).”

Harvey said in a four-year period of time, the number of crimes against another person increased more than 100 percent.

“We believe the biggest contributor to that is the number of failure to appear warrants,” he said.

Failure to appear is when someone has a court date scheduled but doesn’t show up.

“The number has skyrocketed,” Harvey said. “That’s systematic in some degree due to lack of space in the jail cell, lack of responsibility of the person. I heard recently that it takes an average of three failure to appear charges for someone to finally make it to court.”

LGPD Lt. Gary Bell said every time a person doesn’t appear, it costs the police department time. The officer has to write reports for each charge even though “there’s no new crimes,” he said. “It’s still the original crime.”

Driving under the influence charges have also increased. In 2012, there were 17 reported DUI charges, Harvey said. In 2015, there were 39.

“Those aren’t giant numbers, but the (increase) is well over 100 percent,” he said.

—Cherise Kaechele

The thin blue line is a symbol of law enforcement’s position in society, standing between order and anarchy. It’s a symbol of hope. And it’s unwavering.

The La Grande Police Department upholds that symbolism, but it’s getting more difficult to do.

The police department is facing more and more regulations and time- consuming duties added to its schedule, with no change in budget or staffing.

“Nearly everything takes longer to complete,” said LGPD Lt. Gary Bell. “Legislative mandates are being added. It’s a frequent topic of conversation. We are trying to stay abreast of new legislation.”

For example, the new Extreme Risk Protection Order law, which allows a family member to request dangerous weapons be taken away from an individual through a court order, is a complicated process that law enforcement has to learn to deal with.

“It’s not a five-minute job to do,” Bell said.

Hardly anything is anymore.

LGPD Chief Brian Harvey said more and more people are being arrested for driving under the influence. Years ago, a report for a DUI charge took 45 minutes. Now? Completing a report on just consumption of alcohol is a three- to four-hour process, he said.

The massive amount of time required to complete reports today is time the patrol officers would otherwise spend on the street.

“Everything takes longer,” Harvey said. “And there’s no change in staffing.”

Although Harvey is mostly speaking about patrol officers, he said the detectives’ cases take an enormous amount of time as well. A single case can take 100 hours for one detective.

Harvey and Bell agree that this is time well spent. They said the more time they take on a case, the better a victim is served.

“It takes a lot of work,” Bell said.

It also takes a lot of work and time these days to be trained as a police officer. It takes at least a year to get from the academy to being able to do a shift without a training officer.

“Twenty years ago, we’d send an officer to the police academy and it’d take eight weeks, plus four weeks of field training. Now, it’s 16 weeks and the field training will take three to four months,” Bell said. “These increases of time — the learning and the training — it never stops.”

In 2017, the La Grande Police Department had nearly 17,000 calls for service. There are 12 patrol officers, and that averages out to be approximately 8.5 calls for service per individual
officer’s shift, Harvey said.

“We try to provide the same quality of service to (everyone),” Bell said. “When someone calls the police, that may be the first time they’ve ever contacted the police. We try to provide that personal service. And that call may require follow-up and go on for several days.”

When they have so many cases and not enough people, they follow a priority list.

They focus on person crimes. Those crimes include assault and domestic violence. On a good day, there are three officers on patrol, Harvey said. When there’s a crime in progress, they drop what they’re doing and respond to that crime. If there is a cold case they’re working on — something that has been reported previously — that takes a back seat to the in-progress crime.

If there is a report of domestic violence or a fight in progress, the officers on duty respond immediately to that call.

Property crimes can take priority when there has been significant damage. But a $20 item stolen from a vehicle isn’t going to take precedence over a crime in a residence.

Finally, if there’s a public safety issue, that will take priority.

“If we have a mentally ill person who is in traffic, that all of a sudden takes priority,” Harvey said. “That’s a person issue that is high priority.”

Despite the staffing level issues, Harvey said he is proud of the work his department does, including taking care of property crimes.

People need to feel safe where they live, Bell said.

“Our goal is to have the police department talk face-to-face with victims,” he said. “We don’t want to lose the ability to do that. We think we’re still meeting that goal.”

Because the officers must set priorities, they may not be able to respond to traffic violations they see.

“It’s not uncommon for the police to see a traffic violation while driving to a call,” Bell said.

That means when an officer sees someone using a cellphone while driving, the officer may have to let it go. It’s not an ideal situation, but that’s the outcome when there’s not enough resources.

In addition to responding to calls and tackling paperwork, local law enforcement keeps busy by promoting safety on a daily basis.

For instance, Bell, said, “We work very hard to make our presence known in school zones because the safety of the kids is important.”

This isn’t always easy with the restrictions placed on the department’s time.

“I ask for more staff every year,” said Harvey, who made his case in front of the La Grande City Council at the retreat earlier this week. “Our level of service to the public is eroding, slowly but noticeably to us, because we take such pride in our service to the public. It’ll continue to erode due to the demands on our time. At some point, someone has to make a decision and say, ‘Are we OK with this as a community or do we want to stabilize this and get more staffing?’”

Harvey pointed out that economic development also depends upon the community’s police department.

“What kind of good business wants to invest in a trash hole?” he said. “You start losing the attractiveness in a city. Police departments are hugely connected to economic development.”

Bell said it’s imperative to be proactive in policing rather than reactive.

“You have to stay in front of the trends and criminal activity in a community,” he said. “If you look at some communities where they lost the grip on the criminal activity, (you would see that) it’s very difficult to regain that sense of security and safety. That’s why we’re working so hard. We continually ask more of our officers every year. A safe community is a community where people want to raise a family.”