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The St. Helens Police Department addressed the City Council on its need to train officers on water safety.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF ST. HELENS - Tourists and citizens can enjoy a view of the north end of Sand Island. As scenic and woodsy as it is, Sand Island Marine Park, located a short distance from the St. Helens Riverfront District, would benefit from enhanced police patrols.

But that will cost money and additional training for St. Helens police officers, according to a presentation at a recent St. Helens City Council work session by Police Chief Brian Greenway and Lt. Joe Hogue.

Sand Island is unique among St. Helens parks. While it's close to Old Town, the 31.7-acre park is naturally separated from the rest of the city — because it's in the middle of the Columbia River.

According to Greenway, the police department's insurance carrier, CIS, has advised that his department incurs a high liability risk to officers and the city if officers are allowed to respond to incidents on or around Sand Island without having the proper water safety training.

"Until our staff can acquire the proper water safety training, CIS recommends that we only respond to the island, or conduct operations around water, when someone's life is at immediate risk," Greenway told the Spotlight.

Hogue outlined to council members on Oct. 6 the uniqueness of Sand Island and the dilemma his department faces in getting officers to the offshore park.

"We're the only municipality in Oregon that has its own island," Hogue said. "Most of those fall on state or county lands, so usually it's really an easy task to have the marine patrol with either state police or the local sheriff's office to do that."

Hogue added, "There's nothing in the patrol officers' job description when we hired them that talked about swift water rescues and learning how to do all that stuff. … Do we grandfather people in, do we ask for volunteers, do we start now and update the job description for anybody who is starting the job now?"

Currently, minimum qualifications for police work include passing physical tests and being able to lift a certain amount of weight, but nothing is mentioned about marine operations or swimming.

Training would take 40 hours per officer, according to the police presentation.

"That doesn't sound like too big of a lift, but with a 24-hour agency with only 20 sworn, it's going to be difficult," Hogue said, noting the St. Helens Police Department's first priority is to cover patrol shifts around the clock.

Greenway estimates the cost of training and equipping officers would be approximately $75,000. That cost would include the one-time cost of purchasing a police boat, which St. Helens currently does not have.

He noted there would be minimal ongoing expenses such as replacing equipment, maintenance and ongoing training.

During the presentation, councilor Doug Morten noted that many cities have their police and fire department together when it comes to community safety.

"There are possibilities that we can work with other groups," Morten said, bringing up the possibility of working with the county and fire department so the entire burden doesn't fall on the police department. "I see that as a viable option of some sort."

Mayor Rick Scholl suggested that the Columbia County Sheriff's Office ought to be responsible for security at Sand Island.

"Me, being not just a mayor of St. Helens, but also a taxpayer of the city of St. Helens — I'm over there camping, I want to know that somebody is going to be there," Scholl said, adding, "The county does have a boat, and the county should respond because they know that the city does not have a boat."

Responding to Scholl, Greenway pointed out that St. Helens can't control whether the Sheriff's Office responds or not.

According to Greenway, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office has jurisdiction over all waterways in the county. However, any land-based responses in St. Helens, he noted — including calls happening on Sand Island or the city docks — are the responsibility of the St. Helens Police Department.

Under the principle of mutual aid, emergency responders in Oregon can — and often do — ask for assistance from other nearby agencies. For example, in Washington County, the Sheriff's Office and police departments that have police K-9 units will often deploy them at the request of smaller police departments that don't have their own dog. However, a mutual aid request is not mandatory, and especially when resources are already spread thin, other agencies may not be able to answer them.

Greenway said bluntly that St. Helens police need this water safety training.

"There's going to come a time when we're just going to be in a position that we have to be trained," the chief said. "Regardless of what decision is made by the council and how we want to go, we still have to change our police officers' job description to give these officers the training they need."

While water may appear calm, it can be quite treacherous, both for officers and the general public.

"The water out front there is very swift," Greenway said. "Imagine going into that river at 10 o'clock at night when it's pitch-black. You're going under. Now can you survive? I do not want to be the chief that has to hand a flag to a spouse because of our negligence."

Greenway offered a personal example of the danger of water.

"I was fighting a suspect in the river and being dragged into the current," Greenway said. "It is inherently dangerous. I was not wearing a vest … and I was getting sucked into the river."

No decision on patrol training, or a timetable, was made by the council at the work session. The topic could come up again at a future meeting.


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