County sheriff addresses Aug. 26 forum lunch

By Sarah Brown
Of The New Era
Linn County Sheriff Michelle Duncan shared an overview of the Sheriff’s Office during an Aug. 26 Lebanon Chamber of Commerce Forum Lunch at the Santiam Place Event Hall in Lebanon.
Operating with a $44 million budget – most of which is funded through a voter-approved levy – the Sheriff’s Office holds 192 positions to patrol, provide civil services and respond to emergency calls within the county’s 2,309 square miles. They also act as its emergency management coordinator and manage animal control through a no-kill shelter, which has allowed deputies to respond to some “pretty significant” animal neglect cases, Duncan said.
The Sheriff’s Office has enough funding to provide 24-hour staffing and an empty bed for the “bad guys,” Duncan said. There are 231 jail beds in 13 different sections, but inmates must be strategically managed to ensure their safety, taking into such consideration as gender, serious offenders, severe mental illness and suicide watch. As such, several beds often remain empty.
“We can’t mix certain populations,” Duncan said. “They can’t be in the same block, and they certainly can’t be in the same cell.”
COVID-19 added other obstacles as inmates began testing positive for the virus and the court system got backlogged. There used to be an average of about 190 beds filled and two or three homicide suspects housed in the jail, but currently there are about a dozen or so homicide suspects and approximately 150 beds filled, Duncan said.
What’s more, many new laws are being introduced into the system that make law enforcement more challenging, she said. Last year saw the passage of Senate Bill 48 which, essentially, automatically releases offenders with certain charges while awaiting trial. The new law has been active for nearly two months, so no data is yet available to track whether those pre-released offenders appear for court dates. However, Duncan said, a local judge would be quick to say the top crime in Linn County is failure to appear.
Another new law, Senate Bill 1501, dubbed “the headlight, taillight” bill, prevents law enforcement from pulling a car over in Oregon just for having a light out.
“This is very unfortunate because we get a lot of warrants, we get a lot of crimes by these stops,” Duncan said.
Last year, local law enforcement agencies took 31 drunk drivers off the road because they were able to stop them on the “light out” factor, she said.
The Sheriff’s Office responded to almost 33,000 calls for service last year, taking more than 5,000 reports. Reports are made for crimes or incidents that need to be documented.
The Sheriff’s Office has the biggest detective unit in the county. Three of its detectives focus their workload on sex crimes and crimes against children, while the others investigate major crimes, major theft, digital evidence and narcotics. The Sheriff’s Office is also responsible for issuing concealed handgun licenses, fingerprinting, processing civil paperwork and carrying out court orders.
Duncan said she emphasizes the office’s mission statement, “Keeping the peace with dignity, honesty and compassion,” with every new hire she trains because, she said, the way they treat a subject – even the “most vile” ones – reveals their own character.