By editorial board • 

Tragic jail deaths curb public’s trust in sheriff

On Oct. 17, 2014, we wrote, “(Tim) Svenson remains the only reasonable choice for Yamhill County sheriff.” On Feb. 6, 2015, we followed, “Svenson off to good start as new sheriff.”

But that was then. This is now.

As we near the typical announcement point for the May 2018 primary, we would be hard-pressed to replicate either. If the former captain again ends up facing a challenger utterly lacking in command experience, we might again view him as the only reasonable choice. But the electorate will demand better: either a better version of Svenson, whose lapses of judgment and leadership have damaged his standing with constituents; or, a better candidate to enter the contest.

If we appointed sheriffs, as we do city managers, school superintendents and police chiefs, we could conduct a search virtually guaranteeing worthy contenders. As it stands, we are dependent on someone rising from the ranks of a very small pool, a key element of which remains under the incumbent’s command.

Our dimming hopes and souring sentiments stem largely from Svenson’s handling of two well-publicized jail incidents — the beating death of Jed Hawk Myers on May 27, 2015, as guards looked on, and the hanging death of Debbie Samples on Oct. 12, 2016, as guards failed to look on. The sheriff is responsible for cultivating a culture of responsibility and accountability the citizenry can rely on, and the way these tragedies played out, the public is losing faith in this one’s ability to do so.

We thought county voters elected a sheriff in the mold of Lee Vasquez and Jack Crabtree, predecessors known for both guts and grit. Instead, we seem to have employed a more reticent and hesitant version who seems more inclined to hang back in the shadows than stand in front and lead.

It turns out Myers died a totally avoidable death that played out in living color on jail surveillance monitors over a five-hour period. But according to our account at the time, the public was advised, “Corrections deputies discovered Myers in distress early Thursday morning. They requested McMinnville Fire Department medical personnel, but he could not be revived.”

Accounts don’t become much more sanitized than that. It took federal litigation to finally ferret out the truth more than two years later.

By then, deputies had responded to an attempted hanging, transported the victim for medical and psychological evaluation, lodged her on dubious misdemeanor warrants, then afforded her poorly monitored access to a corded telephone, in direct contravention of a suicide watch recommendation. Sadly, that allowed her to finish what she had started, with tragic consequences.

The public was once again subjected to stonewalling and sanitizing until the family’s attorney stepped forward to set the record straight. And aside from contracting out medical care to qualified professionals, which apparently took a second unnecessary death, we’ve seen little to suggest things have been set straight.

Comments

RKOrbison

Beyond inexcusable and unacceptable. Two totally avoidable and preventable deaths in less than a year and a half, one watched for several hours by staff on duty that night. This absolutely does not happen under Lee or Jack, or 99.9% of other sheriffs for that matter.
Appears to cry out for a recall movement.

eclipse

IMO the Commissioners and County Administration are just as responsible. Every year they are required to physically tour the jail review the policies and procedures and certify whether the jail is safe for inmates. Obviously it hasn't been. That's their deal not the sheriff. This is a state requirement. Its also their responsibility to adequately fund safe jail operations. They will shift all the responsibility to the sheriff but pubic records will show that they are in this too. How many more catastrophic things need to happen before citizens wake up to whats happening at the county.

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