As plans move forward on building a new public safety building in St. Helens, the St. Helens Police Department is encouraging members of the public to take a tour of the existing police facility.
An advisory committee has recommended that the St. Helens City Council administratively begin a public safety fund and place a monthly amount on the utility bill as a way of paying for a new facility, says assistant city manager Matt Brown.
After a period of public engagement, the City Council will take up the matter in April.
As this process moves forward, Police Chief Brian Greenway is encouraging citizens to schedule a tour of the current building, located at 150 S. 13th St.
The building, currently with a staff of 22 people, including 19 sworn officers, is simply too small for current police needs, according to Greenway.
"The current facility that we're in right now is 50 years old," he said. "It was built in 1971. At the time it was built, St. Helens only had 6,200 residents. In 50 years, our population has more than doubled."
With 2,200 square feet to work with, police deal with cramped quarters as they process evidence or write their reports.
To put this in perspective, Greenway noted, "A lot of our residents' houses are bigger than our current police station. Imagine having 22 or 23 family members inside your house."
There are several duties police must perform regularly, and space becomes an issue at the St. Helens Police Department.
"Inside that station, it's not like it's 2,200 square feet of free space," Greenway said. "We have to keep evidence, we have to keep equipment."
Greenway noted another problem with the old building.
"We are not in federal compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act," he said. "We have a significant population of St. Helens that needs ADA accessibility."
As an example, an elderly person in a wheelchair or a scooter may need assistance navigating the police station.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about one in 10 St. Helens residents is 65 or older. That's a significantly lower percentage than in Scappoose or Portland, but it's higher than some other cities in the region, such as Cornelius and Sherwood.
A small building also makes it tough for a member of the public to talk confidentially to an officer.
"When we have individuals come in, whether to speak with an officer or file a crime report, we don't have the space available for confidential conversations," Greenway said, noting a person reporting a crime may be alongside someone who is dropping off a flyer for the department.
With a small building, it is hard to provide enough space to process evidence, whether it's drugs or weapons.
"We have to ask other employees to step out while we work on narcotics because the ventilation is poor," Greenway said. "We don't want to endanger other employees while we're doing this."
Occasionally, police may encounter hazardous materials while responding to a call, as Greenway noted.
"Our current facility does not have a proper decontamination area for our officers," the police chief said. "We don't have an area to decontaminate their uniforms, their boots and their gear."
As a way to show the need for a bigger police facility, the St. Helens Police Department is encouraging members of the public to come in and see the working conditions for themselves.
"Right now, we're offering in-person police station tours to our residents," Greenway said, noting that because of COVID-10 safety rules, only two persons can take a tour at a time.
"We give them an actual tour of the station for two reasons," he said. "We want our residents to understand what they have as far as a police facility station, but also it gives us a chance to talk to the residents. We really look forward to engaging our community and being partners with them."
Health and safety precautions for COVID-19 must be followed during tours. Call 503-397-3333 to request a tour.
Tours are available until early April, but a tour after April can be arranged, if needed.
Speaking of the need for a bigger public safety facility, Greenway said, "We're better as a city, we're better as a community. Our residents deserve better."
He added that since these public tours have started, "Not one individual has left the St. Helens Police Department saying, 'Oh, it's fine.'"
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