Astoria Police Sgt. Brian Aydt turned on the sirens in his police car Saturday night and raced from Tongue Point to the Astoria Bridge to respond to a reported accident.
He arrived minutes later to find no accident had occurred, but a recreational vehicle was unable to reach the top of the slope on the bridge and rolled back into the guardrail. The RV was blocking the southbound lane, so Officer Jair Macareno helped direct traffic as Aydt advised the driver on how to make it to the top.
With people swarming the city for Astoria Pride and the Second Saturday Art Walk, these two officers on the bridge represented the department’s entire patrol force on duty at the time.
The Astoria Police Department, accustomed to operating with a small staff, is handcuffed a bit tighter this year after recently losing a quarter of its patrol force. As a result, the department has taken steps to maintain consistency in how it patrols the city as tourists flock to the region this summer.
700 to 1
The department at full staff has 12 officers on patrol in addition to a chief, deputy chief and two detectives. But three patrol officers left the agency earlier this year.
Now the ratio of Astoria residents to police officers — including chiefs and deputies — is more the 700 to 1. That is a little less than double the national average, according to the department’s statistics.
Officers in recent weeks have had to work mandatory overtime, and one detective has switched to full-time patrol duties until replacements are hired. Deputy Police Chief Eric Halverson will take on some detective and occasional patrol duties.
Police Chief Brad Johnston acknowledged in April that the department would have a difficult time until replacements are hired, which will most certainly not happen until next year.
In the meantime, patrol officers will not reduce the number of calls to which they respond. In some situations, they alter how they respond.
“If you want us to come out, we’ll come out,” Aydt said. “It’s just a matter of prioritizing.”
Witness-interviewing techniques may be the most visible challenge for officers, Aydt said. Witnesses often express their emotions and opinions about certain cases to an officer. But since they will be short on time, Astoria Police may need to focus such conversations solely on facts.
The practice, while temporarily necessary, is not ideal. In a small town where officers may rely on witnesses for multiple cases, developing relationships through in-depth conversation is valuable, Aydt said.
“It takes a lot of people skills,” he said.
When officers receive calls about minor issues, they may try to cut commute time by calling the reporting party instead of driving to their location. If the matter still can’t be resolved or the caller still would like to have the officer present, he or she will still show up, Aydt said.
Candidates for the three vacancies have undergone testing and interviews since the Police Department began accepting applications in April. The department is conducting background checks on seven finalists.
About 50 percent of candidates typically fail background checks, while others may turn down a potential job offer, Halverson said. He is, however, fairly confident that one or two candidates will emerge.
When the checks conclude, the new hires will get one year of instruction at the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training before being slowly worked into the patrol rotation.
Meanwhile, other agencies — usually the Clatsop County Sheriff’s Office — can respond to a call within city limits if a situation is ongoing and Astoria officers are occupied elsewhere. Other than in these situations, though, it would be difficult for other agencies to assist. Officers from outside Astoria may not have a full grasp of city laws and regulations.
“There’s not really a magic way to bring those people from outside to fill the void,” Halverson said.