A shoplifting incident in White Salmon last week is putting the spotlight on concerns raised by some community residents about gaps in police coverage.
Last Thursday at about 4 p.m., a man in Hi-School Pharmacy was observed stealing office supplies.
Paul Doty, manager of Hi-School Pharmacy, said he and a store security officer confronted the individual.
"A security officer and myself tried to apprehend the suspect," Doty explained. "He resisted apprehension, pushed our security officer, and took off on foot. We took off after him in pursuit while store staff called 9-1-1. We tried to chase him down."
The man darted between houses and businesses and eventually escaped. Doty said that when he returned to Hi-School Pharmacy, he found out that no police officers were on duty.
"We didn't get a police officer to respond for two hours," Doty said. "There was no police officer on duty; they were on an on-call system. The suspect eluded us, but to be honest, I'm glad we failed. We assumed the cops were on the way. We could possibly have detained him for five or 10 minutes, but not for two hours. It could have been a real ugly situation."
Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Bruce Brending said the department is currently operating with reduced manpower.
"We're looking at our coverage right now. We are short-staffed," Brending explained. "We will be on a modified schedule that will result in basically two-hour increments where we have somebody on call and available. But the call-out can take 15 minutes or more to get an officer up and running."
Doty pointed out that the escalation from shoplifting to something much more serious worried him. He added that he learned later that the suspected shoplifter has a criminal record.
"By our description, they believe it's a suspect the police have interest in, with prior arrests," Doty said.
"We suspect he's a person locally with a warrant for his arrest," said Brending.
Doty said that raised further issues about law enforcement coverage in the city.
"From what I'm hearing, he's not anybody to mess with," Doty said about the shoplifting suspect. "Sounds like a scary gentleman. We're desensitized and think people are going to stop when confronted, but not this guy. My concern is, this could have been anybody. He could have robbed us, and it takes two hours for a response. An employee could have been severely hurt. That's crazy. We need to get the word out -- there's a problem."
Doty said the police usually respond swiftly.
"We had apprehended another shoplifter earlier in the day, and the police responded really quickly. They were there within five minutes," Doty said. "Other businesses need to know if there is an incident, they are not necessarily going to get a police officer to respond."
Brending said the Police Department, like all departments within the city of White Salmon, are operating under budget constraints that essentially prohibit overtime costs.
The situation was exacerbated last week because Brending was out of state for training.
"Because I was away for training, we were on a modified schedule at that time to eliminate overtime costs," he said.
Brending added that the situation may not improve for a time, and officers may be on call during certain periods. He pointed out that, in mid-April, Officer Dwayne Matulovich will be leaving to take a job with the Goldendale Police Department.
"This will be the situation until the Police Department can replace Dwayne," Brending explained. "Dwayne's leaving requires us to go to on-call. We can have 24-7 coverage with a chief and four officers, but that requires the chief to work a large amount of hours, which is what I've been doing."
When Matulovich moves on, the Police Department will have only three officers and a chief.
"Seven officers and a chief is the minimum manpower we're supposed to be budgeted at," Brending said.
A replacement for Matulovich could come as soon as the end of April or as late as October. It depends on whether the Police Department can hire a lateral officer -- who does not need to attend the Police Academy -- or if the department needs to wait for the training of a new officer currently attending the Police Academy.
Brending said the city has already budgeted for the hiring of a new officer as well as replacing the officer who is leaving.
"We don't want to rely on on-call," Brending said. "I hope to get a lateral officer hired."
Doty questioned a system where police officers are not on active duty at certain times during the day.
"I'm not sure if that really works, to have cops on call. I never lived in a city with that before," Doty said. "This is scary stuff. If cops are not able to respond, we have a problem."