Sheriff Yon outlines expectations, concerns at Lebanon forum

Scott Swanson

Sheriff Jim Yon outlined his expectations for his department and some of the issues he expects to deal with in the near future during a talk Friday, Jan. 25, to a capacity audience at a forum sponsored by the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital.

Yon told attendees he decided to give them the same speech he gave his staff when he swore them in, summarizing the qualities and behavior he expects of himself and his 190 employees.

He noted that the Sheriff’s Office’s Mission statement emphasizes honesty and compassion, adding that he and his staff are embarrassed when stories surface about misbehavior within law enforcement.

“We all hate it when we see it,” he said. It gives us all a black eye.”

Honesty, he said, “is the bedrock of law enforcement. We can’t lie. We have a saying in our office, ‘If you lie, you die.’ That means you get fired.”

He added that compassion is a “mainstay” of the department.

“I truly believe in that. We deal with people a lot of times on the worst day of their lives and this might be the only time that they deal with law enforcement. I want to make sure we are treating them right. That we’re doing the right thing.”

Yon said he’s worked for the Sheriff’s Office since 1993 and has served at every rank and in three divisions under four sheriffs before ascending to the office himself. He was elected in an uncontested race in November after being named Sheriff following the retirement of his predecessor, Bruce Riley, earlier last year.

Yon emphasized that relationships are important, both between his office staff as well as between the department and the public.

“We answer every call for service” he said. “It may take some time. But if you call our office and you want to talk to a deputy, you’ll talk to a deputy. We do not have any phone trees. I hate them. Everybody hates them. So when you call the Linn County Sheriff’s Office any day of the week, any hour, if you call you’re talking to a human being.”

The trust the Sheriff’s Office has earned from the public was evidenced in the levy election last year, in which voters approved the levy by a 40-percent margin.

Yon said he told his staff that the campaign to pass the next levy, in four years, “starts today.”

“Every day we have to build so you guys trust and believe what we say,” he told the chamber audience. “Because if you don’t believe what I say, or trust what I say, that’s a problem.”

Trust and relationships are also important within the department, he said. He encourages staff members to help each other, even if it’s something like changing a tire.

“When someone calls for help, we have a history of never saying no, however large or small, because down the road we know the roles could be reversed. We’re all in this together. We can’t do it alone. There’s too much going on, too much information out there, to do it alone. We’ve got to work together and we’ve got to be going in the same direction.”

Yon said he encourages his employees to “go the extra mile, regardless of what it is.”

For a patrol officer, it might mean noting one additional detail that might be important down the road. A correction officer needs to “take an extra second” to exercise a high degree of care and concern in searching cells and checking on inmates – “make sure they’re OK, make sure they’re breathing.”

Noting what he called a “360 View,” he said everything he and his staff do impact other people – other law enforcement and community residents.

“Have an awareness of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, so if you’re affecting someone in a negative way, you realize that and correct it. We want a place of work that’s harmonious and people want to come there. ”

Yon covered a range of other topics during his talk.

County Jail

One of the six divisions in the Sheriff’s Office, the jail is used by all the cities in the county, Yon said.

“I have 192 fine folks in my bed and breakfast,” he said to laughter from the audience. “It’s a good deterrent. People don’t want to go to jail – though times are changing now. It used to be, when we opened the door to release people they’d run. Now we have to drag them out, sometimes.”

He said the food meets federal standards, but he acknowledged that it wasn’t top-notch – to more laughter. “It’s cheap.”

Yon said the jail is one area in which the department needs to spend money for improvements.

He said the jail door access control system, which opens and closes all the doors, and the video camera system inside the jail need upgrades.

The latter, he said, provides a defense against lawsuits and tort claims from inmates who claim they are injured in the jail.

“These cameras prove or disprove a lot of these – a lot.” The system, he said, is old “and it just needs to be replaced.”

He said doors in the jail “just open up out of the blue,” provoking more laughter.

“It wasn’t that long ago staff was doing hourly checks and they went into the day room and there was a guy sitting there, just sitting there. The system showed the door was locked, so that’s a problem. It’s just crazy.”

New Projects

Other new projects include a just-completed new roof to replace the original flat roof on the Sheriff’s Office facility, which was constructed in 1989 and was leaking badly.

“It’s shocking what new roofs cost these days,” Yon said. “I can’t believe it.”

Also, there is ongoing need for computer and other technology upgrades. He said the department had been doing work on its information technology systems.

“We’ve been working on our radios and constantly working on our computers because we live and die with computers nowadays,” Yon said. “When I started, I had pen and paper. We had one computer in the control room. Now each guy has, like, three. It’s just crazy. But it’s the way the world is and it helps us do our job a little better.”

He said a lot of the department’s computers need to be replaced, something he’s working on with his staff.

Technology is becoming increasingly complex and a part of the job, he said, noting that computers and phones play into almost every crime the department investigates now.

“GPS and phones. We need people to get in and actually track that data out of phones.”

The Sheriff’s Office is getting closer to full staffing, Yon said, though he’s still short two corrections officers, two dispatchers, six deputies and a jail nurse.

“Jail nurses – that’s like hiring the president” I kid you not.”

He recounted how his staff had a prospect on the line at the end of the previous week, and had made a call asking the applicant to come in to fill out paperwork for a background check. When Sheriff’s staff contacted the applicant on Monday morning, “they’d already taken a job – with Samaritan Health,” Yon said, rather pointedly to laughter from the crowd. “Thanks.”

He told the audience that jail nurses are treated “amazingly well” by prisoners. “They’re respected and it’s an interesting job, where you can really see the difference you make with these people every day.”

“The condition of inmates these days is just scary,” he said later. “They are just hanging on by a thread when they come in to us and we’ve got to build them back up.”

He said that it’s also hard to find dispatchers and the department has decreased the age requirement for applicants to 18.

He said the job is also likely to become more demanding with the advent of 9-1-1 calls via phone texts and via video, which are on the horizon, and will require more staffing.

The 2022 Levy

Yon said the department was able to maintain the levy passed by voters last May at the level approved four years ago, but the next one will need to be increased “because (the cost) of stuff goes up. It does.”

Mental Health Issues

Responding to a question from the audience about how to ensure the safety of deputies in the field, Yon said an increasing problem is situations involving mental health issues, which are “rampant right now.”

“When I started, back in x’93, if we had a person who was a danger to themselves, we’d put them in our car, call Linn County Mental Health, they’d say, “OK, take them to Salem,’ we’d take them to the state hospital, we’d drop them off, a couple of guys would come out and take them, and we would leave, and they’d be there for a day, a week, a month.

“Today it almost takes an act of Congress to get them to take them. They’re in my jail. They’re walking the streets here in Albany and Lebanon. The state doesn’t want them; they want to keep pushing it off on the counties. They continue to do that every year. I don’t want to get all political, but they’re closing the one in Junction City. They keep cutting the beds at the state hospital. It’s a scary moment in time. This is the reality of what I face every day.”

He cited the example of an individual in the Scio area who had been threatening a local family, he said, and who had had run-ins with his department and the Oregon State Police. Yon said it took a year before they could get the man into the state hospital, despite the general acknowledgement that he was a threat to the community.

“This guy was going to kill people,” Yon said. “We firmly believe that. This is what we’re dealing with.”

In response to a question from the audience about ambush threats, he said his officers rely on their own instincts more than anything else to stay out of trouble.

“These guys, they’re good at what they do. They see situations that the normal person in the public doesn’t understand. We look at someone and we know – we know. They call it ‘profiling’ or whatnot; I call it good police work. I’m sorry. I can look at someone and we know there’s a problem. It’s just something that is trained into us. We see people every day. We rely on our staff, just that sixth sense. We communicate with those people who we believe could do that. All of us are aware of it. That’s the best we can do.”

The Legislature

Yon urged local residents to contact legislators about their concerns.

“They’re in session right now,” he said. “This is going to be the scariest session for law enforcement in my entire career. They have a super majority. They can do, literally, whatever they want. I’m scared to death.”

He noted that bills have been introduced that would override the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that employees who don’t want to join a union don’t have to pay union dues – by requiring the public to pay. Another would prohibit law enforcement departments in the state from using statistics to evaluate or discipline officers.

Yon noted that heroin possession has already been reduced to a misdemeanor in Oregon.

“We have some really good representatives here in Linn County,” he said, recommending that citizens contact Corvallis-area state Sen. Sara Gelser and “those folks.”

“Make your voices heard. Get hold of your legislators and email them. Tell them what you think in the metro area and Eugene. That’s what runs the whole state.”