Police coverage in North Bend could soon look a lot different.
During a work session with the city council Monday, Police Chief Robert F. Kappelman told council members budget restraints will change the way his department functions beginning July 1. He said the issue is simply a lack of officers, saying recent cutbacks have reduced the staffing to levels seen in 2016.
“2016 is when I came to you and said, ‘We’ve got to change something,’” Kappelman said. “We were overwhelmed in many areas of our department, and we are again overwhelmed in many areas of our department. We have actually seen some reprieve as a result of COVID, but I think we’d be foolish to think that’s going to continue.”
Kappelman said after voters chose to eliminate a $15 public safety fee on the city’s water bill, his department had no choice but to cut staff. That led to only two officers per shift, which made handling calls an enormous challenge.
Kappelman said the call volume actually fell 13 percent between 2019 and 2020, saying COVID restrictions were responsible for much of that. But while the numbers of calls fell, some key areas saw increases.
Kappelman said calls for domestic violence, disorderly conduct and disturbances, calls that are often the most dangerous for the community and responding officers, increased 19 percent.
“That’s a lot of calls,” the chief said. “Remember the staffing levels have a majority of our officers working two per shift.”
Kappelman said criminal trespass calls were up 28 percent, intoxicated people calls were up 89 percent and mental health calls were up 122 percent. That last area is one that really bothers Kappelman.
“We don’t want to be involved in mental health calls,” Kappelman said. “We’re not the right people to be there.”
The chief said the core responsibility is preservation of life. With that as the goal, he said he had to re-think how the office would work.
“I toyed with the idea of coming in here and saying one of your options was to abolish the police,” Kappelman said. “That is one of your options. We only have two officers per shift. So, we have to be careful where we place them. I have to be constantly conscious of having people to send to preservation-of-life calls.”
Kappelman said when responding to calls, his officers have to choose between two mentalities – guardian mentality or warrior mentality.
He said some calls, shootings and violent crime, require police to go in with a warrior mentality. But most offer a choice.
For example, he said if a call comes in that a person in a local store is acting aggressively, police can choose how they react when they respond. In a warrior mentality, they would approach the person and ask them to leave. If they refused, police could use force to make them do so. In a guardian mentality, if the person refuses, the right option might be to have everyone else leave the store for their safety. Due to reduced staff, Kappelman said North Bend police will lean toward a guardian mentality more often.
“Taking a guardian mentality may mean in some cases there’s more property damage, but there’s no loss of life and everyone is safe,” he said.
Kappelman said the police were also going to need North Bend citizens to take more initiative in protecting themselves. He explained with reduced numbers, it may be impossible to respond to every call. Therefore, he wants local residents to be vigilant in locking their cars and homes to limit property crimes.
He said some property crimes might not get a police response, with officers asking residents to instead come to the department to report the crime themselves.
“Property crimes, we’re going to need some citizen self-reporting, particularly in cases where there’s no solvable facts,” Kappelman said.
Other cases that might require self-reporting are traffic accidents with no injuries and code compliance issues.
Mental Health issues
Kappelman said one issue ties up more time than any other, handling calls for people struggling with mental health concerns.
“Overwhelmingly, our officers spend a majority of their times with mental health or substance abuse,” he said. “It’s the same 20 people multiple times a day. We need to boost the Coos County Mental Health Crisis Response Team. Those people are fabulous.”
The response team does a great job, Kappelman said, but the team is small and it often takes 30 minutes or more for a response.
The chief said North Bend, Coos Bay, the county, state and other municipalities need to work together to boost the team. He said with more members, the response time could be cut. In that case, real help would be available to the people who need it.
“We have to develop meaningful treatment programs,” Kappelman said. “I believe this needs to be inpatient treatment. At least we need to keep people in a place long enough for treatment to take place. We are begging for help on the frontline. We have to change something about the system. We are chasing our tails all day long with the same people.”
The chief said the system currently offers no help. Police respond to calls for erratic and aggressive people, only to see the same people over and over. Prosecutors won’t press charges since no one was hurt, so police calm the situation and leave, only to be called back an hour or two later. With no mental health help available, the cycle never ends.
He said it will take a combined effort of politicians, nonprofit organizations and health organizations to make a difference.
Until the change is made, the city is getting more dangerous and police can do little about it. He said police can put a hold on a person and take them to the hospital, but they are almost always released the same day with little long-term benefit.
“I’ve only been here eight years and there are places my family won’t go anymore because it’s not safe,” Kappelman said. “It wasn’t that way eight years ago.”
The chief said something has to change.
“We’re working hard and fast, but we can’t keep doing everything we have been,” he said. “It’s setting us up for failure, and failure is not a good thing in our business. All too often, we are chasing our tails, chasing symptoms. When it’s the biggest issue, that’s mental health.”
City Administrator David Milliron said there are chances to make a difference right now. He said Coos Bay and its Homeless Task Force has reached out to North Bend to work together. Mayor Jessica Enegelke and councilors Susanna Noordhoff and Pat Goll agreed to join the effort.
The city could also look for mental health grants and aggressively pursue them. Milliron said the city also wants reinforcement from the council to change how law enforcement is done.
“In the proposed July 1 budget, the public has to know every time they call, an officer may not respond,” Milliron said. “I told him last week, if I could give you 50 officers, I would, but I can’t. The pendulum is changing. The level of service is not going to be the same.”
Kappelman said the key moving forward is making sure the people understand how things are changing.
“We’re charting new territory,” he said. “Every single officer in our agency was trained to live a life of 100 percent customer service. It is very hard to say we can’t come to that call when someone calls in. We need some citizen buy-in to make some meaningful change.”