By Paul Daquilante • Staff Writer • 

Tribal force gearing up to fill county void

Dean Rhodes / courtesy of Smoke SignalsTribal Police Chief Al LaChance briefs the General Council during an April meeting.
Dean Rhodes / courtesy of Smoke Signals
Tribal Police Chief Al LaChance briefs the General Council during an April meeting.

However, he said rapidly escalating retrenchment on the part of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office is forcing the fledgling agency to assume new responsibilities faster than it would like, and the two agencies are grappling — not always in total harmony — with how best to manage the transition.

Grand Ronde created its own force 18 months ago, and hired LaChance, a longtime command officer in the Central Oregon community of Redmond, to serve as chief.

He was joined by fellow tribal member Jake McKnight, a Willamina High School graduate, who has achieved the rank of sergeant.

The department has since added officer Patrick McConnell and his canine partner, Nixwa.

It is about to add Tyler Brown, scheduled to complete training at the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training Academy in Salem this month. LaChance said he plans two more hires in the fall.

The force also includes an emergency management coordinator and an administrative support staffer.

LaChance released statistics in April showing the department is already making a difference when it comes to criminal activity.

Last year, it responded to 1,756 incidents, about 60 percent occurring either in tribal housing or at the Spirit Mountain Casino.

During the first quarter of this year, it responded to another 700 incidents. In doing so, it developed 158 cases, made 52 arrests and seized $2,000 worth of illegal drugs.

Most tribal facilities, including the casino, lie across the line in Polk County, where devastating budget cuts are crippling Sheriff Bob Wolfe’s force.

That factor places added pressure on LaChance’s department.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it’s going to impact us,” he said.

Polk County’s 2013-14 budget funded 11 deputies, two assigned to the detective division and the rest to patrol. However, it has since lost four, including McConnell, who left for Grand Ronde, and hasn’t had the funds to replace them.

Wolfe was hoping to get eight deputies funded in the 2014-15 budget, down from 19 at his office’s 2008 peak, predicated on revenue from jail bed rentals to Columbia County. Passage of a Columbia County jail bond issue in May means that money is about to disappear, so he’s going to have to make do with six, two of whom will be assigned to the detective division.

Wolfe plans to have three sergeants help remaining deputies patrol the county’s 740 square miles of rural turf. However, he will only be able to provide coverage from noon to 10 p.m.

“We budgeted money from Columbia County, renting jail beds, to keep from laying off additional employees,” Wolfe said. When voters there passed a jail bond, they knocked a $300,000 hole in that plan.

“We had hoped to return patrols back to at least 20 hours per day, but that will not happen,” the sheriff said. “We will remain with patrols working only 10 hours per day.”

During April and May, 322 calls were received between 10 p.m. and noon, with no deputies immediately available to respond. Wolfe said there were 28 reports of car crashes, 77 on driving violations, six on burglaries, 15 on thefts, 11 on welfare concerns, 12 on domestic disturbances, 13 on suspicious activities, four on suspicious persons and three on drug violations.

The department got another 473 calls during normal shift hours. It was able to respond normally to those.

In recent years, the sheriff’s office has kept four patrol deputies stationed in Grand Ronde. But Wolfe is planning to pull those July 1.

That will give the new Grand Ronde force sole responsibility for patrolling an expanse of northwestern Polk and southwestern Yamhill. It will also bear primary responsibility for responding to calls originating at the casino, on the tribal campus or in tribal housing, with the sheriff’s office retaining primary responsibility for responding to calls not from tribal facilities.

As bad as that sounds, Wolfe is warning that the worst may be yet to come.

“Unless there is a way to stabilize our funding before July of 2015, additional patrol reductions are likely,” he said.

Wolfe explained, “There are mandated functions, by law, that OSP and municipal police agencies cannot fulfill, such as search and rescue, processing of court orders and civil process, along with operation of the county jail.”

Because other agencies can assist the county with its patrol duties, that’s where the bulk of the cuts have to come.

Through its Spirit Mountain Community Fund, the tribe offered the county $225,000 to continue two Grand Ronde positions. But Wolfe declined the money.

Tribal spokesperson Siobhan Taylor questioned the wisdom of that. “His refusal of nearly a quarter million dollars of funding, while puzzling, is his prerogative.”

Over the years, she said, the tribe had spent $6.7 million subsidizing Polk County Sheriff’s Office operations in the Grand Ronde area. She said it was willing to continue doing so.

“Our offer still stands,” she said. “We remain committed to providing the best in public safety to all our citizens and will continue to patrol and work cooperatively with all areas of law enforcement.”

Wolfe said it would have cost him more than $225,000 to fully train, equip and deploy two officers, and he wouldn’t have been able to offer them assurance of continued employment after the grant term expired.

“It was going to cost me money and positions,” Wolfe said. “I can now use experienced deputies to patrol the entire county instead of the 32-square-mile Grand Ronde Service District.”

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