Brookings port mulls police options

By Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer June 23, 2013 10:41 pm

For the last three months, Michaelle Hamblin has watched criminal activity — thefts, vandalism and possible drug deals — increase at the Beachfront RV Park at the Port of Brookings Harbor.

“If something isn’t done soon, it’s going to get bad real fast,” said Hamblin, who is co-manager of the RV park with her fiance George Fleek. 

Her sentiments were echoed by commercial fishermen, retail store owners and port officials, who also reported a sharp rise in crime.

With several major tourism-based events scheduled at the port this summer, port officials are anxious to address the issue quickly. Based on anecdotal information, transients appear to top the list of possible suspects.

Two weeks ago, the port installed gates at the entrance to the RV park to keep unwanted people out at night.

During a port meeting Tuesday, the commissioners directed Port Manager Ted Fitzgerald to research ways to combat the crime.

The possible options include:

•The formation of a port police department (allowed by state law).

•Contract with the city of Brookings or the Curry County Sheriff’s Department for 24-hour police services.

•Finish the installation of video cameras at key locations.

•Install fences and gates to commercial and recreational boat slips, boat storage yards and commercial areas.

•Research the possible annexation of port property to the city of Brookings.

City Manager Gary Milliman said he met with Fitzgerald, Port Commissioner Jim Relaford, Brookings Mayor Ron Hedenskog and Police Chief Chris Wallace on June 12 at the port’s request.

“We told them we needed a formal request from the port commission to consider it further,” Milliman said.

Subsequently, Milliman and Relaford researched whether the port could form its own police force and contract with the city, Milliman said.

The port’s request and the results of that research will be presented to the city council during its regular meeting on Monday.

“I think it’s feasible and I want to see if the city council is interested in pursuing it,” Milliman said.

Curry County Sheriff John Bishop, whose jurisdiction includes the port district, was also interested in exploring possibilities.

“I understand what the port is trying to do and we can certainly talk about it,” Bishop said. “There are a lot of questions and issues that need to be addressed. I think the discussion should involve both the city and the county.”

While the sheriff’s department has not seen an increase in official  reports of crime from port businesses and officials, he was aware of a problem with transients in the area.

“We busted up a large transient camp just last week (off Lower Harbor Road), so that should help,” Bishop said.

That’s good news for Hamblin, who complained that transients, often intoxicated, walk through the RV park bothering campers.

The transients have also been an issue for Kristi Daniels, co-owner of the Hungry Clam restaurant at the port.

“It’s been bad. The transients have been taking food right out of the trash cans and eating it right in front of the customers,” Daniels said. 

The transients have also intimidated Hungry Clam employees and were observed stealing aluminum cans set aside in an outdoor container for charity, she said.

“There’s nothing we can do,” she said. “We ask them to leave, but they get rude. They don’t care. They know that the sheriff’s deputies are not around.”

The sheriff’s department does not have a deputy on patrol anywhere in the county during specific night hours, and a limited number of deputies are on duty during the day. The only other options are the Brookings Police Department, which will send an officer to the port if it’s a life or death situation, or the Oregon State Police, which may or may not have a trooper in the area at any given time.

Port officials believe transients and would-be criminals take advantage of the lack of law enforcement at the port.

“It’s a serious problem. I’m hearing reports of fuel siphoning, drug deals, fishing rods and other equipment being stolen right off the boats in both the commercial and recreational basins,” said Port Commissioner Jim Relaford. “The port is a whole different place at night. It’s like the Wild, Wild West.”

He said Fitzgerald and several port employees are often the only people available to confront potential suspects.

“That’s not right,” Relaford said. “I’m very worried about their safety and the millions of dollars worth of boats and equipment at the port.”

When a port employee contacts an unruly person and threatens to call the sheriff “the common response from that person is ‘good luck with that,’” Relaford said.

Mike Manning, port commissioner and commercial fisherman, recounted a recent incident in which he caught a man breaking into his vehicle at the port at night.

“I called the sheriff’s department but since it wasn’t life or death, I was told a deputy wouldn’t come until the next day,” Manning said. “Fortunately, I called the (Oregon) State Police, and a officer was there in about three minutes.”

 He and other port officials were concerned that more problems will happen during upcoming big events such as the Fourth of July and the Southern Oregon Coast Kite Festival.

“The increase in crime will affect tourism,” Relaford said at Tuesday’s port meeting. “We have to do something now. We have to be proactive, not reactive.”

The commissioners unanimously asked Fitzgerald to explore possible options with the city and county and report back at a yet-to-be determined special meeting.

However, several commissioners instructed the port director to tread lightly when it came to researching the possibility of annexation.

“We don’t want any knee-jerk reactions,” said Commissioner Sue Gold, who is keenly aware that annexation of any property in the Harbor area to the city of Brookings is a highly controversial issue in the community.

Even so, Fitzgerald said the possibility of annexation must be explored.

“If annexation costs less than contracting with the city or county, then it should at least be considered,” he said.

Anticipating that annexation would come up in any discussions, Milliman said he and city’s attorney “took a fresh look at the water service provision in the charter which has been perceived as a stumbling block to annexation south of the Chetco River in the past.”

  Also in the past, he said, when the city has agreed to extend city services beyond the city limits — specifically water and sewer services — the city has either required annexation of the property or required the property owner to enter into an agreement to annex at a future date. 

“I don’t know if the city council will apply this same policy in this case,” Milliman said.

Fitzgerald said he will also research how other ports handle security, such as the Port of Gold Beach, which contracts with the Gold Beach Police Department for security.

Both Fitzgerald and Milliman agreed, independently, that it was too early to say how much contracting with the city of Brookings for police services would cost.

Fitzgerald hoped to give commissioners a ballpark figure as soon as possible, but it would not happen before the July Fourth activities at the port.

Commissioners were not sure where the extra money would come from as they approved on Tuesday a $5.2 million budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year. The budget did not allocate funds for the formation or staffing of a police force.