Prineville short on police

Growth, hiring pressures mean residents may wait longer for service

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: November 18. 2006 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Officials at the Prineville Police Department are worried that the agency’s days of responding to “everything from barking-dog complaints to homicide,” in the words of Police Chief Eric Bush, may be numbered.

In the last few years, the department has started to feel the pinch of a larger population and its demands for service. Now, it may have to begin prioritizing certain calls and not responding to all incidents.

“Traditionally, we’ve been a full-service public safety agency … but as the demand on our police officers grows, the ability for us to provide that level of service forever is impacted,” Bush said. “We’re reaching a point where we have to take a look at the kinds of services we provide and make conscious decisions: Do we continue to provide those services?”

Sheriff Rodd Clark said the Crook County Sheriff’s Office is experiencing similar problems with overburdened officers.

These problems that are compounded by the fact that smaller departments have trouble attracting and retaining staff over higher-paying offices in Bend and Redmond.

Sgt. Ray Cuellar, 44, grew up in Prineville and has been with the Prineville Police Department since 1990. He said that when he started, there was one officer per shift who could handle calls and get caught up with paperwork. Now, the three officers per shift often fall behind on paperwork because they are called out of the office so often.

“There’s a lot of departments that don’t respond to residences for small petty theft. We still do; we make that connection with the public, which is our customer, every day,” Cuellar said. “If you have that connection with them, they see a face instead of just a case number over the telephone. To make that connection, I think, is really important.”

Full-service agencies

While calls for service to the Prineville Police Department have increased almost 20 percent since January 2003, Bush said, the department has added only one officer since then, a staffing increase of 7 percent. Prineville has 17 police officers and one community service officer.

Clark said calls for service to the Sheriff’s Office were up 37 percent in the first six months of this year over the first six months of 2005. Even though the county added three sheriff’s deputy positions this year, Clark has not yet been able to fill them.

The annual budget for the Prineville police is about $3 million, most of which comes out of the city’s general fund, Bush said. Similarly, much of the Sheriff’s Office’s roughly $4.5 million annual budget is paid out of the county’s general fund.

Part of the difference in being a “full-service public safety agency” is not just responding to all calls, but also investigating incidents that might only be recorded in other police districts, Bush said.

“If we respond to a minor crime like theft of a bicycle or somebody stealing something out of a car, a relatively minor crime but a very serious crime to the victim at the time, we have always traditionally done a very good job of investigating those incidents and have had a lot of success in solving those cases,” Bush said.

Even as public safety officials say they worry that their quality of service is starting to decline, several local business owners said they have not had any problems with crime. Maureen Suydam, the manager of Hatfield’s Department Store and a Prineville resident, said people sometimes loiter in front of the store, but there have not been any significant issues.

“I realize that’s changing, but it’s still enough of a small-town atmosphere that businesses, a lot of people look out for each other still,” Suydam said. “I haven’t really heard much of any businesses being broken into (or) vandalized.”

Michael Richitelli, a Prineville resident and member of an informal citizens’ advisory group to the police chief, said officers responded quickly on the occasions he called about a dog loose in the neighborhood.

“They were out here right away. I didn’t have that kind of problem,” Richitelli said. “But now, with the development, naturally there’s more homes in the area and more animals and more crimes.”

Creating a priority list

The Bend Police Department began dealing with the question of prioritizing calls more than 15 years ago, Bend Police Chief Andy Jordan said.

Now, Jordan said, Bend police officers try to respond to all calls, but they are dispatched according to a priority list, which means that those at the bottom could take “a significant amount of time.”

Jordan said Bend officers no longer respond, for example, to people who are locked out of their cars. Officers also maximize their time by not taking a report for certain incidents – such as a fender bender in a parking lot – and dictating reports into a tape recorder so they can be transcribed by office staff.

“What we don’t have is what we call free time or free patrol time,” Jordan said. “Officers don’t have the time to do the kind of investigations that need to be done, and they’re not able to go out and be as proactive as we would like, and that’s where the strain is.”

Madras Police Chief Tom Adams said his department has struggled with similar issues, especially when it had to lay off three officers several years ago. Last year, each Madras police officer handled about 1,300 calls, Adams said.

Currently, according to Bush, a Prineville officer handles about 1,000 calls per year, which is up from about 880 calls per officer in 2004. Bush said the ideal is about 800 calls per officer per year.

Bush said that in a 2004 survey conducted by the police department, Prineville residents indicated that preserving a “small-town feel” is a top priority.

“The community here wants to maintain that small-town feel and so, by gosh, that’s going to be very important for this police department,” Bush said. “In order to do that, we need a level of service that is probably beyond what we have right now to keep up.”

Ultimately, the addition of new officers will be dealt with during the city’s annual budgeting process, which comes in January.

“We need to ask the community, ‘What is it that you want us to do?'” Bush said. “Because it does cost money, and at this point we’re going to have to start making decisions on what’s most important for our customers.”

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