As Multnomah County slashes budgets, sheriff shares safety concerns

Read this one-on-one interview and learn why you’ll probably see fewer big drug busts in East Portland from the sheriff’s skilled dope-busting deputies. And, see why this news is grim for our friends in Gresham, Fairview, and East County‚

Take a look at the POUNDS of heavy-duty narcotics‚ like crystal meth‚ the deputies in Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Special Investigation Unit bring in when they bust big-time dope dealers.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
East Portland News Service has covered many stories in which the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Special Investigation Unit (SIU) has taken down top-level drug dealers, and curbed the influx of methamphetamine and cocaine.

So, we wondered why we were being summoned to the Hanson Building ‚Äì the leaky old structure that houses the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO)‚ for a “show & tell” on April 17.

At the event, the SIU sergeant tells reporters how Multnomah County’s impending budget reductions will impact the unit.

After the meeting, Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto invites us into his office where, one-on-one, he frankly speaks of his concerns regarding public safety, as county commissioners decide how much to cut from the sheriff’s budget.

Sheriff Bernie Giusto doesn’t mince words as he outlines the funding situation for his organization.

In his words
We ask Sheriff Giusto, “What’s the real story here?”

“The story is that the county has built a government they can’t pay for,” Giusto begins. “It didn’t happen in the last couple of years‚ this started many years ago.

“With I-Tax revenue, expectations were high. It did provide a financial bridge for two years. But it also did two things: It built expectations we would be able to maintain those levels of service; and, secondly, while this was going on, our costs were increasing. Labor costs were going up.

“With the I-Tax gone, coupled with the increase of labor costs, we’re back in an ‘every-year, budget-cutting mode’.

“To start, it looks like we’ll have to cut 114 jail beds,” says the Sheriff.

SIU deputies put on display some of the confiscated drugs, bagged and ready for sale. From July 2006 through March 2007, deputies have cleaned $8,800,000 worth of dope off the street, including 5.34 lbs of cocaine, 1.32 lbs of heroin and a whopping 7.2 POUNDS of methamphetamine. MCSO photo

Why Special Investigation Unit cuts will hurt
Giusto continues, “And, our Special Investigations Unit will also take some cuts.”

We enquire, “Is the SIU the unit that catches the drug runners, bringing multi-pound loads of crystal meth into the county?”

“More importantly,” Giusto elaborates, “the SIU is the only group, the only law enforcement unit that does these drug missions in East Multnomah County on a daily basis, east of 162nd Ave.”

Drug investigations don’t stay within boundaries, he adds. “When it comes to initiating [county jurisdiction drug] investigations, or cleaning up meth labs, we were the only ones. We’re still the only one doing clean-ups. No one else is equipped to do those meth lab cleanups. If we don’t do them, they don’t get done.”

Deputies say this gear was taken from meth labs they’ve cleaned up. Without funding, future lab clean-ups are in doubt. MCSO photo

Says Wheeler is responsive to concerns
“[Multnomah County] Chair Ted Wheeler has been responsive to our concerns‚ as much as a $15 million overall ‘budget hole’ will allow him to be.”

Instead of holding off making cuts in the future, Giusto said Wheeler is making cuts starting this year. “He’ll be making a cut, county-wide, of $10 million this year and $5 million next year.

“But, on top of the cuts we’ve taken at the Sheriff’s Office — $6 million one year, $8 million another year and another $5 million cut this year ‚Äì these cuts are starting to get very painful. The cumulative effect of these cuts is this: We’ve run out of services that are debatable‚ wondering whether or not they’re important.”

Core services reduced
In other words, the Sheriff’s office will start making cuts to core services, Giusto clarifies for us.

“We are now down to ’emergency response’ levels of funding. This includes investigations, drug investigations, patrol and river patrol.”

Giusto pauses, and adds, “Although, yesterday, the Chair did add back $750,000 for River Patrol.”

Had some funding not been restored, Giusto states frankly, he’d have to make deep internal cuts to keep the River Patrol in operation. “The River Patrol either has to be funded at a reasonable level, or we have to stop providing this service. But, we can’t get ‘out of the business’ because nobody else does it. We have the equipment, trained personnel‚ and a state mandate that we provide this service.”

Redefining services to East County
“What this means for East County is this,” the sheriff continues. “We’re working with Gresham to redefine our services.”

This is difficult, he says, “Because where you find drugs, you find crime. Drugs and crime go together. As you know, we work with East Precinct’s CRU [Crime Reduction Unit]‚ and we’ve reduced crime. But now, violent drug-related crime is popping up on Gresham and East County on a regular basis.

“Major incidents in Gresham of shooting and stabbings, drug killings, are going to increase — now that they’ve reached that 100,000 population mark. This is hugely problematic. When cities grow to this size, they start to experience big-city crime.

“Gresham has a couple of choices. They have to get serious about funding some officers for ‘street crimes’ unit. They only have two FTEs [full time officers] right now. It’s a good start, but it’s ineffectual against mid-level drug dealers.

East Portland: something has to give
We ask, “Let’s talk about your work with East Precinct’s Crime Reduction Unit (CRU) and the Regional Organized Crime Narcotics Agency (ROCN). If there are budget cuts, what can we expect?”

Giusto thinks for a moment and replies, “We’re still working on how to move our personnel around. But, something has to give. We may have to give up drug investigators and release deputies to do general [crime] investigations.

“But, the fact of the matter is, downstream, the things SIU is doing to reduce drug-related activities are more important than anything else. We can’t let drug dealers run wild. That’s a bad idea.”

“We can’t let drug dealers run wild. That’s a bad idea,” says Giusto.

Migrating crime to East County
“The crooks go to the places of least resistance. If Portland keeps pushing hard, they’ll go to Gresham or East County. They don’t quit. They just go somewhere else. And, we really don’t want East Multnomah County to be the place they go.

“If you don’t think East County is ‘growing up’‚ last month, we had our first drive-by shooting in City of Wood Village at 7:30 in the morning. We’re ‘growing up’ in a way that isn’t very good. It’s happening before our eyes. We’ve got to recognize what’s going on.”

What you can do
We ask Sheriff Giusto if there is anything citizens can do to support law enforcement.

“Express your priorities around public safety, law enforcement presence, and jail beds to your County Commissioners,” replies Giusto.

“Secondly, if the County can work with the City of Gresham or other jurisdictions, these governments must ask citizens to help fund an increased law enforce presence.

“Gresham has run out ability to address the problems. They’re doing a good job with [the funding and officers] they have. But when you only have 106 police officers, in a city of 100,000 people‚ this isn’t a good ratio.

“Gresham, and the east end of East Precinct, has become the ‘poverty center’ of the county. This means not only more crime, but also more victimization. It’s tough to ask citizens to help sometimes, but we need to be able to provide service.”

“Anything else?” we ask

“We’re not opening our new jail this year, either. We’re having our third birthday party out there‚ empty,” concludes Giusto.

Editor’s note: the Multnomah County budget is currently in its draft form; it is not finalized until June. Contact your county commissioner to express your views now.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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