St. Helens police plan to push for November tax levy to aid shrinking budget

May is typically a slow month for police work, a lull before summer.

Jokingly, St. Helens police listed various scenarios that could stretch the agency's already bare-bones staffing even thinner: a major crime like murder, or an officer out on an injury. Even losing one patrol car would be a blow to a department that has had 25 percent of its force laid off in the last four years.

Then, in one month, the city saw two slayings, a head-on collision involving a police car, a tense standoff that tied up law enforcement resources from St. Helens to Clatskanie, and a brawl with a suspect that left two officers injured.

All this, and the warm weather hadn't even hit yet.

To deal with the fallout from these May incidents and an ongoing budget crunch, the St. Helens Police Department plans to push for a tax levy in the November election to cover personnel costs and purchase newer patrol vehicles, said St. Helens Police Chief Steve Salle.

Economic growth has been slow and the police department, as well as every other city department, has been forced to stretch what little is left.

City grows, police shrink

In the last decade, St. Helens' population has swelled - 12,883 in 2010 according to the U.S. Census, up from 10,019 people reported in 2000 - but the police department hasn't grown to match. Instead it has shrunk, falling from 20 sworn officers in 2008 to the current 16.

'We're always running the razor's edge of not being able to handle it all,' said St. Helens Lt. Terry Moss.

Police tried to make it so the public wouldn't feel the lack of coverage, but 'now I think it's inescapable... We're not around as much as we should be,' Salle said.

Officers still respond to every call, Salle said, but now they're responding later than before.

In years past, an officer might have responded promptly to a noise complaint. Now, a call about a barking dog is at the bottom of the priority list and few patrol cars have the time to idle near highways watching for drunk drivers.

'It's unavoidable that the service we provide shrinks,' Salle said.

Blitz of crime brings 'fatigue factor'

On May 6, there was a shooting - one man died and a woman was injured. The suspect led police on a high-speed chase that ended in a crash at an intersection.

Investigators hadn't recovered from, or even wrapped up, that investigation when, on May 20, they had another apparent murder on their hands. Columbia County Mental Health caseworker Jennifer Warren was found stabbed to death in the home of patient Brent Redd Jr.

A St. Helens officer had to be stationed at a Portland hospital 24 hours a day for over a week while Redd was treated for apparent self-inflicted knife wounds. With one officer out on maternity leave and another away at training, that brought the number of officers available in St. Helens to 13.

And the calls kept coming.

On May 22, a man at the St. Helens Marina store reported a body floating in the Columbia River. It was later identified as John Leroy Sullivan, who had been missing for five months after falling from a boat on Dec. 11, 2011. One case closed, but the day was only just beginning.

Later that afternoon, a St. Helens man threatened suicide and barricaded himself in the top floor of his parents' house. He held police in a standoff that lasted nearly seven hours. After multiple negotiation attempts and two gassings, he surrendered to police.

With that situation cleared, St. Helens Officer Jon Eggers left the scene and was driving home on Highway 30 through Scappoose, when a woman, attempting to turn into a parking lot, crossed the highway and hit the K-9 patrol car head on. Eggers suffered only minor injuries and was off duty and suffered only minor injuries. The police car was not so lucky.

May 23 was relatively quiet. Then, on May 24, police received a report of two men attacking each other in a quiet neighborhood street in St. Helens.

Tyler Everett Gregory McCartney was out of control, the St. Helens police reported later. He allegedly fought back when police intervened. One officer fractured and dislocated an ankle in the scuffle. A second officer went to the hospital with pain in her ribs.

Backlog of cases

With summer on its way, bringing increased traffic on Highway 30 and more people out and about, the department is down one officer and one patrol vehicle and has a backlog of cases.

In April, the St. Helens City Council approved the purchase of two new patrol vehicles, according to city Finance Director Jon Ellis, but more are needed and have been needed for a number of years, Salle said.

Hopes are high a tax levy will aid the department further as it stares down an uncertain economic future.

'There's a definite fatigue factor,' Salle said.

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