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Cornelius cops face gangs, roosters

Chief's fiscal year report reveals department's varied challenges

Police work in Cornelius means confronting certain challenges: gang activity, vandalism and, of course, rooster violations.

The roosters are just one of the things that make Cornelius stand out from other cities, said Police Chief Al Roque, who gave his 2015/16 fiscal year report to the Cornelius City Council on July 5. Call volume is another.

The department received 14,245 calls from July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016. That works out to about 1.17 annual calls per citizen — much higher than is typical for a city the size of Cornelius, Roque said, and higher than any other city he's seen.

But that’s not necessarily a bad sign, given that the department has worked hard to encourage citizens to call in.

“Policing is a partnership with the community and so if people see something (suspicious), we want them to say something,” Roque said.COURTESY PHOTO - Cornelius Police Chief Al Roque

This might seem straightforward, but it's surprising how often people don’t call to report crimes, he said.

“People think we’re too busy or they don’t want to bother us. Or some people will see a crime and call the next day.”

Since the Washington County Sherriff’s Office assumed responsibility for policing Cornelius in 2014, calls have steadily risen.

Council Chairman Dave Schamp noted the community's attitude toward its police has taken a dramatic positive turn over the last few years.

“The most common conversation I have with people somehow relates to the police force,” Schamp said. “It used to be 80 to 90 percent negative. Today it’s the exact opposite — 90 to 95 percent positive. The turnaround over four years is remarkable.”

Roque credited his deputies, who want to be in Cornelius, he said, choosing the smaller community over bigger and more active areas.

But its small size doesn't protect it from big problems.

Roque attributes some of the large call volume to the city's gang activity, lower socioeconomic status and location on Highway 8.

"We’re a major thoroughfare and the community is growing. And being close to Portland, we get some gang-affiliated crimes too," he said. "Gangs do business in Portland but like to live elsewhere, like in Cornelius.”

Although Roque admitted other communities have larger or more visible gang presences, he noted that the two most serious cases from the last year were gang-related: an attempted murder on the corner of 4th Avenue and Davis Street, and an armed robbery on 7th Avenue.

“If you drive around off the main drag, you’ll see it,” he said.

Roque also presented the results of a community survey conducted in January which received 68 responses, 92 percent of which rated the department’s professionalism as “good” or “excellent,” which is a particular point of pride for Roque.

The department has worked hard to build positive relationships with the community, he said, especially through events like Shop with a Cop, Coffee with a Cop, and Backpack and Snacks with a Deputy.

Among the other information in Roque’s report was a note that the department received 14 calls of rooster violations over the last year. While chickens are allowed in the city limits, roosters are not.

“I’m not much of a farmer myself,” Roque said, “but from what I understand, you can’t really tell the sex of a newborn chick, so sometimes you end up with roosters.” And roosters crow. The department treats rooster reports like loud music: if an officer doesn’t hear it personally upon arrival, nothing can be done.

Perhaps the roosters can be caught on camera. The department just finished its first body-worn camera trial, during which three officers wore the cameras for three months. Roque said the department is interested in doing another, perhaps expanded trial, but there are logistical obstacles.

“There’s no timeframe right now,” he said. “We’re waiting on the vendors. Many, many departments want cameras.”

Fireworks spark public response

The Cornelius Police Department's ongoing effort to strengthen cooperation with the community makes July 4 a challenging holiday.

At the July 5 city council meeting, Council Chairman Dave Schamp expressed consternation at the proliferation of illegal fireworks during the Fourth of July holiday, which he said was unprecedented this year.

“I’d never experienced anything like it,” said Schamp. “Mortars from pre-dusk past midnight. Chunks of debris were raining down. It’s distressing to see the disregard of state laws by our neighbors.”

One elderly neighbor, said Schamp, feared her house might be damaged or catch fire, so he stood in the street for an hour to help her feel at ease. Schamp stressed that “something needs to be done.”

Asked later about the problem, Police Chief Al Roque said there's a certain expectation among some citizens that illegal fireworks will be tolerated and suggested a "shift to no tolerance" would be most successful if packaged with a county-wide educational campaign.

Roque said Cornelius deputies got five 911 calls related to fireworks the night of July 4, including the early morning of July 5. None ended in a citation or arrest but two people got warnings, he said.

In addition, there were 22 "area information" calls, including a call from Schamp to the non-emergency line, which got no response.

Roque said the call was never forwarded to officers because it was unclear if the fireworks presented a threat to life or property. If someone was clearly in danger, a deputy would have visited, he said.

"This seems to have boiled down to a miscommunication between the reporting party and the call taker," Roque said.