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New police chief shoulders heavy load

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - St. Helens Police Lt. Terry Moss will take over as chief of police April 1. He has been with the department for over 20 years, working as a patrol officer, a detective, a sergeant, and, most recently, as lieutenant before his promotion to chief.The next St. Helens chief of police is inheriting a bleak budgetary landscape and an understaffed department after a police levy that would have provided funds to hire more officers failed to pass in November. Meanwhile, summer — usually a busy time for police — is swiftly approaching.

Knowing all of this, Terry Moss, a sworn officer with the department for more than 20 years, accepted a promotion that would push him from police lieutenant to police chief after the current chief, Steve Salle, retires April 1. The Spotlight sat down with Moss to find out why.

The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.

What does the next year look like, from a budget perspective?

Obviously we want to avoid any cuts at all, but with the city budget as it is that doesn't seem possible. It's kind of the grim reality that those cuts need to come from somewhere. I just wish they didn't have to come from us. I feel like we've suffered through a lot over the last couple of years, going from 24 total staff — we had 20 officers at one point. We cut our admin staff in half, cut our code enforcement staff in half and then reduced the number of officers from 20 to 16.

To reduce even more, it creates a strain on all of us.

Any projects you want to take on as chief? Or will the budget restrict that?

When we did the levy last fall, we talked to a lot of people and we realized there's a large percentage of the population that doesn't realize what we do. They don't reconginze the impact of crime in our community. We need to somehow do a better job of informing the public about the police department, what we do and stuff that's going on in our community crime-wise.

The City Council wants us to enhance our visibility in the community and enhance our delivery of services in the community. Both of those things are tough to do when you're looking at to reducing staff, but, on the other hand, our public needs to be better informed about what we do.

If somebody doesn't know that much about the police department, maybe it's because they haven't had to call you ... isn't that a good thing?

We hear things regularly about, "Why do you need more police officers? Why does the community need 24-hour police service? Do we really get that many calls?"

I was at an event, in my uniform, and a lady pointed to my radio — it was quiet at the time — and she said, "Does that thing go off?" I told her it goes off all the time. We get anywhere from 20 to 30 calls for service a day and she was floored. She couldn't believe that in a city the size of St. Helens the police would be called 20 or 30 times a day.

What sort of crimes?

People always want to compare us to the bigger cities: St. Helens is so peaceful; it's a quiet town; we don't have a lot of crime. That's true but the crime we do have is just like any place else in the world. Last year, we had two homicides. Look back just two years ago to [Rainier Police Chief] Ralph Painter's death. The drugs: heroin is making a huge comeback.

We see violent crime, lots of drugs, child abuse, domestic violence, alcohol. All that stuff is in our community but I don't know if the public recognizes or realizes the extent of it. We have just as many problems, though on a smaller scale, as any other place in the world.

Does a tight budget change the priorities of the police department?

Our swing shift is the busiest shift by far. Those two or three officers find themselves a lot of times going from call to call to call. With that there's not a lot of time for extra stuff in between.

Our traffic stop numbers have plummeted. They continue to go down and part of that is because our busier shifts, in the afternoon when the public is out and about and activity levels are up, the officers don't have time to work traffic. They're going to calls for service.

We're not doing the DARE program anymore. We're not doing our Citizens Academy anymore. Those extra things we used to do we're just not able to do anymore.

So, what makes you want to take on the job of chief?

It would be a blast if we had lots of money. If budgets weren't an issue, this job would be so much easier. One of the things I remember from previous Chief Roger Roth. When he retired and I got promoted to lieutenant, he gave me a list and said, "These are some things you need to know." And one of the things he told me in that letter, I'll never forget it, was, "Don't be afraid to say no."

And, unfortunately, we've become pretty good at that — saying, "no" — not only to staff but to the community. It's become a part of our vocabulary that I wish we didn't have to use so much. It's fun to say yes.

But I think I have an idea of where we need to go, what we need to do to try to be more effective in the community and I want to give it a shot. It's going to be tough but I think we'll get through it.