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Ashland explores expanding police force

After hearing from Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara that police are understaffed and overburdened with cases, Ashland City Council Monday explored funding of $400,000 for five new police officers, with the money possibly coming from utility fees, property taxes and the hope that emergency communications in the county would form its own district, cutting an expense here.

At a study session, where final decisions are not made, O’Meara said Ashland’s population is up 22 percent in the last 19 years, but the police force has the same amount of staff, resulting in more cases for each cop and longer response times. 

Because of “downtown behavior issues” among the homeless, the force has had to increase its presence there, while eliminating the school resource officer and withdrawing from the regional gang enforcement team, he said. 

In addition, O’Meara said, police are spending more time with new ordinances from the council and doubling the amount of time on each case because of Ashland’s demand for “community policing,” meaning “encouraging them to slow down, engage the community, make sure everyone is heard ... build partnerships, relationships, identify problems preemptively ... not as authoritarian as in the past.” 

Councilors roundly supported increasing police staffing, but struggled with finding the money in their tight budget. City Administrator Dave Kanner said they’ve just started crunching numbers for a “massive” PERS increase, but, after that, might be able to find 9 cents from property taxes, and if they duplicated the utility fee of $1.40 a month that went for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, which generated $175,000 a year, then diverted the money now going to ECSO (Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon), they would be at $400,000. 

However, Jackson County would have to offer the ballot measure forming a communications district, which can only be offered in even-numbered years and is a “big if” for passage, said Kanner. 

Hiring police is no walk in the park, but takes eight months from posting the ad, finding officers able to do Ashland’s different kind of policing, going through training and finally having an officer on the street. He said he could have the first two on the street for the 2018 season. In addition, all cities in the region are trying to hire. 

The Ashland force has 28 people, including 13 patrol officers. With Ashland’s population, they should have 38, he noted. The policy is to have two police respond to any critical or confrontational event. If they are responding, it means another incident at the same time won’t get the required staffing, he said. 

Regarding the city's emergency shelter, councilors decided to give more warning — 24 hours instead of the same afternoon — for volunteers to know it is likely to be cold enough, below 20 degrees, for the emergency shelter to open. Volunteers complained that setting up shop and staffing it is a lot of work, and they’d appreciate it if the city Community Emergency Response Team staff did it or got some nonprofit to take it on. 

If The Grove on East Main Street gets used as an emergency shelter, the city should realize it was built as a dance floor and needs more gentle care, so councilors decided to get a roll-out vinyl covering to protect it. They also studied a change in the rules to allow homeless people younger than 18.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.