City needs better understanding of non-merge option

A decision about whether or not the Cornelius Police Department should merge with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office has been postponed until winter after a Sept. 16 vote was struck off the calendar at last Tuesday’s city council meeting.

“It is important for our citizens and city council to have some idea of what the police department would look like if we chose to keep police services in-house,” said City Manager Rob Drake.

“Consequently, we are recommending that the mayor and city council delay further public discussions about the police services contract until at least December and more likely January 2014.”

Cornelius officials have a pretty good idea of how a sheriff-run department would look, but aren’t as clear on how a Cornelius-run department would operate if they stuck with current Police Chief Ken Summers and declined the merger.

Summers is working on a restructuring plan, which he will present to the council in January. Much of it is based on informal recommendations from the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, he said.

City officials also need to analyze the amount of money they’d save in insurance and legal costs if the department merged with the sheriff’s office, which would assume most if not all of its growing legal bills, Drake said.

That could be an important factor, given the unusually high number of police-related lawsuits recently filed against the city and some of its officers, mostly related to in-house tensions and accusations.

One other benefit that would come with a merger is already happening: a backup sheriff’s deputy.

With so few patrol officers, Cornelius often has only one on duty, which is a problem if simultaneous calls come in. The merger plan proposed sending in a deputy when second calls needed coverage.

But Cornelius already started doing that this summer.

It also uses deputies to fill in for sick or otherwise missing officers, instead of paying overtime to a Cornelius officer.

“We frequently have been calling them in,” Summers said.

A separate sheriff’s deputy is also temporarily helping to cover the city from 2 to 10 p.m. Although technically he replaces a sergeant currently on long-term leave, his duties are those of a patrol officer.

That patrol help won’t necessarily disappear when the sergent comes back on duty, said Summers, whose restructuring plan will likely have fewer supervisory posts.

In addition, a long-vacant patrol officer position is about to be filled.

“We’re in the final stages,” said Summers, who expects to hire someone by Oct. 1 if not sooner.

But he’ll keep the contract with the sheriff open. “We’ve been really pleased,” Drake said of the cooperation.

“We’ve had a great partnership with the sheriff,” Summers said. “No matter what happens, we don’t see a need to change that.”

With or without the merger, Drake said, the Cornelius Police Department will look different — and better — than it did before Summers stepped into the chief position last November.

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