The long roads of Eastern Oregon have gotten lonelier for Oregon State Police over the past four decades, and troopers are now lobbying to reverse the trend.
At a Joint Committee for Ways and Means hearing in Pendleton on Friday, several troopers used their off-duty hours to tell state legislators that they needed to commit to bolstering OSP’s dwindling ranks.
The issue isn’t limited to Eastern Oregon.
According to OSP Superintendent Travis Hampton, state police employed 624 troopers and sergeants in 1980. But despite experiencing steady growth over the past four decades, the state’s trooper and sergeant count has fallen to 381 in 2019.
Compared to other states, Oregon is far behind the pack.
A 2016 study comparing states’ patrol troopers per 100,000 people found that Oregon was second to last, leading only Florida in that statistic.
When local city and county law enforcement is included, Oregon is dead last.
OSP’s long-term attrition has been felt at the local level as well.
Dain Gardner is a trooper who works for the OSP Fish and Wildlife Division out of the Hermiston worksite.
Gardner told the ways and means committee that he’s used to working alone.
“Backup is not a priority to me because I know I’m not going to get any,” he said. “Half the time a radio doesn’t work, so it does me no good. I have to just take care of myself and I’m good with that.”
But Gardner said he has trouble working his beat when he might be the only OSP trooper on duty on the Interstate 84 corridor from Portland to the Idaho border, a situation that isn’t infrequent on summer Saturdays.
Michael Mayer, another trooper based in Hermiston, said he used to be one of two law enforcement personnel working out of the OSP’s Heppner office, but when he transferred to Hermiston, the office closed with his departure.
Heppner hasn’t been the only Eastern Oregon office to shutter.
Back in 1980, OSP staffed six troopers in Milton-Freewater. That office has since shuttered, and according to Pendleton trooper Karl Farber, OSP can only afford to patrol the north Umatilla County area once or twice per week.
“Other than that, county guys are up there working it and they’re on their own,” he told the committee. “Now they don’t have backup because they don’t have troopers up there.”
The state has not only closed the Heppner and Milton-Freewater offices, but also halved the Hermiston worksite from 18 to 9.
The 26 personnel between Pendleton area command and the Hermiston worksite now cover an area that encompasses the entirety of Umatilla and Morrow counties and includes parts of Gilliam, Grant, Union, and Wheeler counties.
Pendleton area command Lt. Mike Turner said an important part of OSP’s job is to enforce traffic laws on the interstates and state highways.
At a time when traveling speeds and fatal collisions are on the rise, Turner said a lack of staff means troopers aren’t able to cover as much as ground as they used to.
Turner said the other part of OSP’s job is providing support to local agencies, which return the favor when they can.
Boardman Police Chief Rick Stokoe said he’s noticed the difference since OSP closed its offices in Heppner and Arlington, which used to staff 12 members.
Stokoe said the Hermiston office is often too busy to completely cover Morrow County roadways, and the Morrow County Sheriff’s Office now frequently sends deputies to do traffic enforcement.
Besides being frustrated as a taxpayer that the sheriff’s office is diverting resources to a traditional OSP jurisdiction, Stokoe said he was concerned that Oregon was the bottom of the barrel when it came to law enforcement numbers.
“That’s a pretty scary number,” he said.
In order to boost OSP back to its 1980 levels and beyond, the troopers at the ways and means hearing spoke in favor of House Bill 2046.
A bill that came at the request of Gov. Kate Brown, HB 2046 mandates the state maintain at least 15 troopers per 10,000 Oregonians by 2030.
If the bill comes to pass, it would require a massive OSP hiring spree in the decade to come.
According to a fiscal impact study from the Legislative Fiscal Office, the state would need to spend $146.4 million over ten years to hire 300 troopers and purchase 146 cars, among other expenses.
The bill is currently awaiting consideration by the ways and means committee, which deals with budget issues.
State Sen. Bill Hansell, a Republican member of the committee whose Northeast Oregon district includes much of the area covered by OSP’s Pendleton area command, said ways and means has heard “loud and clear” that OSP needs more staff.
But in his experience, the Legislature has typically been squeamish about tying funding to population numbers.
Hansell said if Oregon were to experience another recession, a trooper mandate would require lawmakers to begin making cuts to other areas to meet it.
Hansell said OSP could see staffing increases through a criminal justice package that’s folded into the state budget, but it might not meet all of OSP’s needs.