St. Helens chief of police addresses city council on staffing
As St. Helens continues to grow, it's becoming more necessary to add officers to its police department, which is the only 24-hour, 7-days-per-week police agency in Columbia County.
That was the theme of a presentation at a recent St. Helens City Council work session, held Wednesday, Oct. 6.
Police Chief Brian Greenway and Lt. Joe Hogue addressed councilors on what they say is the need to beef up the department.
Greenway said the request is in anticipation of upcoming retirements in 2023. His agency could potentially lose six officers to retirement in the next two years, he told councilors.
To illustrate the shortage of manpower, currently two detectives with the St. Helens Police Department are handling 36 active investigations. According to Greenway, national best practice for a detective to ensure a detailed criminal investigation is to manage 8 to 10 cases.
Cases can include child sexual abuse, elderly abuse, child pornography, attempted homicide, bank robbery and kidnapping, among others.
"We do have individuals in our community that trade child porn, and it's concerning to all of us in this room and all of our residents," Greenway told councilors. "Right now, there are nine referrals (and) five of those referrals are active investigations. We get these referrals from task forces around the nation."
As to patrols, Hogue shared that his department logs almost 45 calls per day. Those calls vary from minor requests for assistance to complex criminal investigations.
That number is well up from 2020, according to police officials.
Greenway said, "We have already responded to approximately 1,000 more calls this year than we did at the same time last year, and there is no slowdown in sight."
In 2012, a staff study done for the police department recommended that 27 sworn officers police the city. The number today is 20 sworn officers.
Noting that the population of St. Helens is increasing, Greenway said police staffing levels are the same as they were in 2008.
"We are now feeling the effects," Greenway said. "We have had to remove our two school resource officers, which was impactful. We didn't enjoy doing it. It was a difficult decision. We do have officers, when available, to walk through schools. We are in constant contact with the schools."
Another effect of a shorter staff: courtroom security, which Greenway said is on the chopping block if St. Helens doesn't address upcoming retirements and what the chief sees as a present staffing shortage.
"We don't have the staffing to provide security for the judge," Greenway said. "We talked about possibly hiring a bailiff, and we went through a series of interviews. That didn't pan out. We found it best that we just would carve out an officer from our agency to provide the much-needed security for the judge."
Greenway noted that one of the problems facing police departments is morale. Law enforcement officials across the country have pointed the finger at anti-police activism.
The streets of Portland were roiled for months on end last year after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
Some activists have focused their calls on incremental reform efforts, such as changing policing procedures, adding more civilian oversight, and retraining officers on de-escalation tactics. Others have called for at least a portion of funding to be stripped from police departments, a punitive measure after repeated instances of civil rights violations and fatal incidents in cities like Minneapolis and Portland. Others still have called for police and prisons to be outright abolished.
While few politicians have embraced the more radical "abolish the police" drive, and efforts to defund police departments have largely been unsuccessful, law enforcement officials and police unions throughout the United States say officers are turned off by the public criticism and feel unsupported.
"In 2023, six of our sworn officers on the St. Helens Police Department become eligible to retire," Greenway said. "In the last two years, you have seen, across the nation, officers retiring as soon as they're eligible. They're tired. They're burned out."
Greenway continued, "I will tell you that, out of those six, four are supervisors. Sitting here today, I will guarantee you that two of those officers will be retiring in 2023. They have made no bones about it."
Greenway noted another reality in police work: Unlike other professions, where you can make a hire and get that person on the payroll quickly, it takes time to get an officer officially on board at a police department.
"It takes about 52 weeks for a patrol officer to be approved for solo patrol work," Greenway said. "This includes the time to advertise the job, go through the hiring process, send the individual to the police academy, and then complete their on-site field training."
And that's no guarantee that the department won't end up losing that officer — whether he or she transfers to another agency, decides they aren't cut out for police work, or washes out due to unsatisfactory performance.
"One out of four that we hire will not make it," Greenway said.
Greenway made a plea to the City Council.
"We can build all the parks, we can build all the recreation centers, and we can build apartments," Greenway said. "However, if people do not feel safe, they will not visit those things."
Greenway added, "I am not fearmongering at all. I am not trying to intimidate. I'm just trying to speak factually that we need more officers to serve our community in a capacity that they are used to and that they deserve. I'm asking council to consider putting police staffing and the police department on the forefront."
Another lingering problem is that even if a new police position is approved, "I can't guarantee we'll fill it. Everybody is struggling with finding qualified people," Greenway said.
But he thinks his agency may have better luck than others.
"We offer a community that's progressive, a council and a community that supports them, so I think we'll be able to entice people to come here and work — but again, it's getting the right individual into this community," Greenway said.
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