County leaders address rising crime

Marion County Commissioners Colm Willis and Danielle Bethell spoke at the Mid-Willamette Valley Public Safety and Crime Discussion, May 2, at the Chemeketa Small Business Development Center in Salem. (Charles Glenn/Keizertimes)

Business and civic leaders from around the Mid-Willamette Valley met Monday, May 2 at the Chemeketa Small Business Development Center in Salem to host a panel of elected and appointed Marion and Polk county officials on the subject of rising crime and public safety.

The discussion group, which usually meets monthly online, is a partnership between the Chambers of Commerce in Salem, Keizer, Silverton and Dallas. The group’s focus is on how and what local communities can do to improve public safety in Marion and Polk counties.

Dominating the discussion topics was the intersection of mental illness, drug abuse, homelessness, crime and the resource limitations imposed by the COVID pandemic. The panel included both the Marion and Polk County sheriffs, district attorneys and county commissioners.

A non-profit advocacy group, Mental Health America, recenty calculated Oregon as last in the country—51at olace—in mental health , using a cross-section of data covering substance abuse, homelessness, the uninsured and self-reported mental illness. They also count Oregon as 47th in mental illness among youth.

“I think, in general, the biggest challenge we’re dealing with is this mental health crisis,” said Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast. “We’ve been dealing with it for a long time, and it’s co-occurring with a lot of other issues.”

Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton said he would “totally agree” with Kast’s remark, adding that the mental health crisis calls in Polk county have doubled in the past two years.

Garton said these calls are not simple – they are complex and time-consuming, and requires a lot of continual training for the officers involved.

More than one speaker made a point to say that panels like this are great at identifying and describing problems, but less effective at coming up with solutions. That might be an oversimplification intended to convey humility, or it might be a reflection of the overlapping complexities of mental illness, homelessness, drug abuse, COVID and crime.

From left to right, Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast, District Attorney Paige Clarkson, Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton, Salem Chamber of Commerce Vice President for Business Development Jeff Miller, and Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron were among the discussion participants. (Charles Glenn/Keizertimes)

One point of agreement among both speakers and chamber members was a near-universal objection to several pieces of recent state legislation, in particular 2020’s Measure 110 and and the recent Senate Bill 1510. Measure 110 mostly-decriminalized the personal possession of illegal drugs in Oregon and SB1510 placed a host of restrictions on law enforcement.

According to Garton, most of Polk County mental health crisis calls also involve drug use.

“A lot of times, when we’re dealing with someone who has some mental health issues, we’re not able to get them help if they are impaired or intoxicated – we see this drive other criminalities like trespassing,” he said.

Kast said prior to SB1510, law enforcement officers were often able to intervene in these situations and effectively “use” a drug charge to direct the offender into the mental health system for treatment. Now, he said, they have to approach the problem from a different angle. For Marion County, that means mental health teams going out into the community to “interact with folks in a different way.”

On the subject of homelessness, Kast was quite direct. He said homelessness is not a law enforcement issue, but it becomes one by default.

“The crisis usually starts with a mental health issue,” said Kast.

Kast, who estimated that 40% of the inmates in the Marion County Jail have an identified mental illness, said it’s a set of convoluted, “well-ingrained” problems facing law enforcement.

Gaston said his county’s percentage was likely higher, and estimated that 10% of the inmates in the Polk County Jail who have an identified mental illness are unable to conduct their own legal defense, and in some cases even speak or communicate with others clearly.

“A couple of decades ago we had some mental health institutions locally – Fairview, Hillcrest – and they shut down. At the time, there was talk about having the services provided by some other avenue, and that just hasn’t materialized. We wind up dealing with that situation through our jails especially, but also on the patrol side,” said Kast.

Much of what the sheriffs had to say was echoed by both county district attorneys.

“I’ve been a prosecutor for over 20 years,” said Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson. “The last few years have been the hardest in my professional career – I’ve never seen the criminal justice system struggle like we have over the last few years, and many of these problem are beyond our control, like the pandemic, but all of this has compressed the system like never before.”

Clarkson said social distancing rules and new regulations meant only two courts in Marion County were fully-functional and able to hold jury trials during the pandemic, when they would usually have 13 available. In describing the challenges and the public support for Measure 110, she gave equal weight to what she called Oregonian’s “confused compassion.”

“With Measure 110, we’ve seen the compassionate heart of Oregonians and our signature desire to help people become confused with a lack of accountability – you can be compassionate and still hold people accountable.”

Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton described the mental health crisis as “the defining issue” of his career, and he thinks one way tackle it is to make the courts more accessible to the public and more victim-friendly. He proposed to make procedural hearings and court activities public and put more cameras in courtrooms.

Jeff Miller, who emceed the event and is a board-member the Salem chamber, said the real value of these discussions is to get the officials and the business leaders in the same room and on “the same page,” and plans to have further panels on the issue.