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Security officer sees risk with on-call police

Is it worth the liability of another lawsuit?

Hi-School Pharmacy's loss prevention supervisor for Washington and Oregon is warning White Salmon about relying on a system where police officers are on call at times.

Bob Wilson, a security professional with 20 years of experience -- including work for three law enforcement agencies -- was involved in the April 3 incident in White Salmon in which an alleged shoplifter pushed him and fled after being confronted.

The suspect in the April 3 case eluded two store employees who tried to apprehend him as employees called 9-1-1. When Wilson returned to the store, he called the police dispatch center to ask, "where are the police?"

"They said they had given the police our information, and that was all they could tell us," Wilson said. "My question is, what constitutes an emergency and not an emergency? You can go on a `normal' call and it turns into an emergency."

Wilson is based in Vancouver, but travels around the region to various Hi-School Pharmacy and other stores under the chain's ownership to provide security services.

"I've seen on-call police, and it doesn't work well at all," Wilson said. "Then I get in a situation where I'm chasing someone, and find out the police are on call."

Wilson pointed out that there was a potential risk to the public in incidents such as the one at Hi-School Pharmacy.

"The man might become very dangerous. Other people can get involved; he's out in the parking lot and running," he said.

Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Bruce Brending said the department is temporarily not able to provide 24-7 coverage due to the fact that the department has only three officers and a chief working. At full strength, the local police force would comprise seven officers and a chief.

Brending pointed out that the situation is especially difficult right now because one of the city's four officers left White Salmon and went to work for another department in mid-April.

"That makes a short staff shorter," Brending said.

However, city leaders said there could be an improvement soon: The Police Department may soon hire an officer currently working for another law enforcement agency in the area.

"We're looking at a lateral hire," explained White Salmon Mayor David Poucher.

"If that hire is successful, hopefully he would be available the first part of next month," said Brending. "He has more than 15 years of experience, and could really help the Police Department."

In addition, another officer has been hired; he is currently enrolled at the Police Academy and due to begin service in the Bingen-White Salmon community this fall.

Brending believes the department can provide 24-7 service with as few as four officers and a chief -- provided no one is out for training, illness, or vacation at any given time.

Over the years, Wilson has worked in many communities with small police departments, including Ridgefield, Battle Ground, and Woodland. He characterized the police response times in those communities as "great," and said White Salmon has generally been equally efficient.

"White Salmon, in the past, has been wonderful," Wilson said. "I have great respect for all the officers here. But when this (April 3) incident occurred, I was very disappointed. I assumed police were on the way."

Wilson described the suspect in that shoplifting case as about 6 feet 2 inches tall, about 30 years old, with tattoos on his neck.

"People think, `oh, it's just shoplifting,'" Wilson explained. "But most people who run or people who get into wrestling matches with us have criminal backgrounds. This individual -- I'm very glad he got away from us after I learned about his background. I learned later he has been in jail in the past. Not a good fellow."

Wilson warned that incidents of crime in the local community could increase if officers are not continually on duty.

"Not only citizens know, but the bad guys know. They are not dumb," Wilson said. "When officers are on call, they'll watch, and there you are: Your burglaries will jump up. I once worked for an agency that had officers on-call. Crime increased to the point where they had to contract out law enforcement services, and respect for the officers in that community dropped."

Wilson said he believes the city has to prioritize funding for departments that provide safety and security to local residents.

"Don't play politics with people's lives," he cautioned. "You can't play politics with the Police Department. You can't cut their budget. You don't cut the Fire Department or the Police Department. That's where your liability is going to jump."

Wilson warned that there was a financial risk to the city if it cannot maintain an adequate police force.

"If a tourist here gets robbed and then finds out the police force was on call, is it worth the liability of another lawsuit due to injury?" Wilson questioned.


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