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Sheriff prepares to hang up the saddle

After 37 years, a quieter life and his wood shop call to Dan Noelle

Nobody ever said that retiring Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Noelle doesn't speak his mind.

For example, when city Commissioner Dan Saltzman lobbied last winter for his proposed children's levy, Noelle quickly called reporters to criticize Saltzman's action. He characterized the levy as 'selfish' because it wouldn't provide programs to county children living outside the city limits.

He also said it should be funded by the state, not the city.

In reality, he was angry because Saltzman's measure Ñ along with the Multnomah County library levy and the Portland parks levy Ñ effectively squeezed Noelle's proposed levy for jail funding off the ballot.

Voters approved the three tax measures, but Noelle was left without operating funds for the new Wapato Correctional Facility under construction in North Portland.

'I was willing to back up and wait for the library (levy),' says Noelle, a former assistant Portland police chief. 'But I wasn't willing to wait for the children's levy. I was very sore.'

It wasn't the first time that Noelle, 58, lashed out publicly at another elected official. Since his first term as sheriff in 1994, he has butted heads with everyone from former county Chairwoman Bev Stein to one of his own command staff, Lt. Vera Pool. Noelle demoted Pool after a flap at the jail, and she later twice ran unsuccessfully for sheriff Ñ once against him and once to replace him.

But colleagues have come to respect the tenacious, honest style of Noelle, who will close the door on his lengthy law enforcement career when he retires Jan. 1.

'The thing about Noelle you can always count on is, he'd always tell you what he thought,' says Dave Simpson, a former Portland police officer who worked in the same circles as Noelle from 1965 until 1992.

'That's something I admired him for. Sometimes he cleaned it up a little bit to try and spare someone's feelings, but you knew which way he was coming down on an issue, whatever it might be.'

A new plan

Noelle (pronounced NO-LEE), a local fixture in politics and law enforcement for nearly four decades, will leave the Justice Center for his wood shop, where he will build furniture.

'My goal is to become a really good woodworker,' he said. 'Thirty-seven years is a long time to do what I've done. I don't feel at all embarrassed for leaving now. For a while, I'm going to do what I need to do.'

As he leaves office, Noelle says his biggest regret is not being able to see the jail through its funding process. He hopes that the county board of commissioners and Sheriff-elect Bernie Giusto will push voters to approve the levy, which probably will be on the November 2004 ballot.

Noelle waited until two days after the Nov. 5 election to take a last opportunity to talk up the benefits of the 550-person Wapato jail. The facility, once open, will have the capacity to treat 350 inmates with mental health problems and drug and alcohol addictions.

Out of the 40,000 bookings in Multnomah County each year, '2,600 people take up 25 percent of our money,' Noelle says. 'They're the people who are the most mentally ill, the most drug- and alcohol-affected. They're constantly in mental health crises, constantly in and out of the hospital.

'The jails are the biggest mental health care facility in the county right now,' he adds. 'We have to deal with the problem, and we have to deal with it in a better way than just release them back to the street with no support.'

The five-year, $75 million levy would allow $15 million to $18 million a year for the jail's operation. Voters in 1996 approved a $54 million construction levy, but there's no funding to run the jail once it opens.

Help for mentally ill

Advocating for the mentally ill has been a major part of Noelle's term as sheriff. He has sued the state of Oregon twice, asking that it admit mentally ill inmates to the Oregon State Hospital in a timely manner.

He has served on a team of city and county leaders who are studying the feasibility of a mental health court, a specific docket of offenders that would reduce the load on the mainstream court system. He has sat on countless meetings with leaders working on redesigning the county mental health system.

And he opened Dorm 13, a 65-inmate space in the county's Inverness Jail. It is the state's first dorm dedicated solely to treating inmates with serious mental illnesses.

'Dan Noelle was the best advocate of mental health services,' says Jason Renaud, a former spokesman for the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill in Portland. 'He will be sorely missed.'

Perhaps no issue was more delicate, however, than dealing with the county budget and its impact on the jails.

Throughout his term, it has been a constant struggle for jail beds and money.

But he has made strides. In 1997, he fought and won a 17-year-old federal court decision that capped the justice center jail's capacity at 476 inmates. Noelle added 200 more beds to the justice center by double bunking, chalking up a savings of $10,000 a day in inmate costs.

He also saw the crowding crunch ease when the 190-bed Multnomah County Correctional Facility, known as the Farm, opened in Troutdale. But 2 1/2 years later, the jail was mothballed as a cost-saving measure. It's now open but only to house work-crew inmates who had to leave a floor of the Justice Center Jail as it was being renovated.

Noelle says that with another $3 million in his coffers, inmates would no longer have to be released early from jail because of overcrowding. So far this year 1,830 inmates have been released early.

'Treated me very well'

Former Portland Police Chief Penny Harrington remembers Noelle back in the 1960s, when he attended a union picket on the docks the day after he shot someone in what was ruled as a justified shooting.

'What it said to me was that he really took everything very seriously and wasn't about to let anything fall through the cracks,' Harrington says. 'He always treated me very well, and he was around in those early days when I wasn't always treated well.'

Colleagues note his sense of humor, warm personality and the knowledge he brought to the job.

'My impression was that he always did a very good job and represented the police bureau very well,' says Assistant Portland Police Chief Derrick Foxworth, who, like Noelle, used the visibility of the police bureau's public information officer position as a steppingstone.

When his term ends at the end of the year, Noelle looks forward to hanging up his well-worn uniform and hitting the power tools in the wood shop he built in his basement. He doesn't foresee coming out of retirement to run for any elected office.

'The job of being a sheriff is a great job,' he says. 'I've had a ball. But running for office is a miserable process.'

Contact Jennifer Anderson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .