Emergency … or nuisance?

A centerpiece for the Gresham Outlook looking into complaints about a slow response time by police to a teen party.


Standing outside their house, Adele and Robert Jones describe how a large group of youths broke into the vacant house next door and proceeded to party. (Josh Kulla/Outlook)

The first group of young people arrived around 11 p.m. Monday, Aug. 15, and soon after hung a white T-shirt on a tree in front of a vacant, for-sale house in the 2600 block of Northeast Morlan Avenue.

They had first driven by a few times in their Mercedes and SUVs, making sure the place was unoccupied, before breaking in.

Soon more teens arrived, unloading cases of alcohol and — as discovered later — drug paraphernalia.

Along with the crowd of about 50 teens also came the requisite loud music for an impromptu party in a neighborhood whose residents were trying to sleep.

The partiers escalated their antics, becoming more disruptive and threatening to the surrounding neighbors. They raced their cars up and down the street, openly drinking and shouting obscenities at one another. Finally, things became violent as a fight between two began in the street and spilled into a neighbor’s yard.

“As the night went on they became more brazen in their actions,” Robert Jones said. “I don’t want to see this happen in my neighborhood, or anyone’s neighborhood.”

Adele Jones, who has lived in the neighborhood for 42 years — for fear of retribution — avoided turning on her lights because she didn’t want the people outside to know she was watching.

“We called the police, and they did not show up,” Adele said. “They didn’t arrest the kids, they did nothing. I want to know where my money is going.”

The Gresham Police Department has records of eight calls being made by four people between 11:16 p.m. and 12:19 a.m. The neighbors wanted a faster response, as they felt unsafe because of the party, and don’t understand why it took more than an hour for the police to break things up. But the police say they have to be able to prioritize calls, working a balancing act to address the most critical incidents while attempting to keep the city safe with an understaffed department.

Prioritizing emergencies

The priorities of calls are established in protocols set between the Bureau of Emergency Communications and police agencies. Calls are prioritized by danger to life and the need for assistance, typically on a scale. The highest priority is granted to calls about a shooting, injury wreck, armed or suicidal person, death, robbery, assault in progress, traffic hazard, domestic violence, missing endangered, and calls in which someone is fleeing after committing a crime.

“Calls of suspicious people may or may not be a medium priority based on the information given and totality of the circumstances,” said John Rasmussen, spokesperson for Gresham police.

The first call to the police regarding the incident — stating there was a “vacant house” with a for sale sign that had an “unfamiliar group of kids” inside having a party — didn’t give the department a reason to prioritize the issue.

Dispatch designated the call as a lower-priority premises check that did not require nor include officers being sent immediately, police say.

Four more calls were made during the next 43 minutes explaining that more youths had appeared outside of the home, with one reporting seeing a “mob,” but the caller couldn’t articulate that any crime was being committed, police say.

At 12:15 a.m. a neighbor called to say the partiers had spilled onto someone else’s property and that he was going outside to confront them. Within two minutes of that call, six officers and a sergeant responded and arrived five minutes later, police say.

“While officers were en route, the original and third callers called back to report people fighting and sounds of screaming, which hastened patrol’s response,” Rasmussen said.

Accountability for damage

As the patrol cars arrived, the sirens led to most of the revelers running away. Nine remained inside the home, and were detained and identified by the police. Four of them were under 18.

“This is ridiculous when kids are breaking in, doing drugs and fighting,” said Dieter Schreiber, a neighbor. “They should have taken them to the station and had their parents pick them up — some accountability for the damage that was done.”

Instead police say they released the youths because they were unable to reach the property owner of the house used for the party. In most cases you need a victim or complainant to press charges. While examining the house, officers did not find any damage.

“As such, the subjects involved would at most be facing criminal trespass charges,” Rasmussen said. “If, and only if, a victim could be identified and desired to move forward with prosecution.”

An officer was eventually able to make contact with the homeowner on the evening of Aug. 22. She reported finding writing on the walls in a bathroom and expressed the desire to have the youths who had been inside her house held accountable, police said. The case has been sent to the district attorney’s office for consideration.

The next morning, many of the neighbors came together to clean up the street and yards after the night’s events. There were empty containers, foil wrappers associated with drug use and capsules all around, and some minor damage to the vacant home and yard.

“I blame the police department and our mayor, they need to get tough,” Schreiber said. “Things will just keep getting worse otherwise.”

Busy night

When the first 911 call about the party came through, police were dealing with several emergency calls. The department had one supervisor, one K9 and nine officers on staff. There are typically six officers on a night shift from 6:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. and three officers on the shift from 2:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. After that there are usually six to seven officers working the entire city.

While the party was revving up, one officer was already dealing with a trespasser in a different part of the city and another was tied up on a domestic violence assault. Four officers were working with a suicidal transgender juvenile armed with a knife, and one of them had to be pulled away to leave the city and assist with locating a missing and endangered rafter on the Sandy River. Four more officers were trying to locate and save an intoxicated man who was reportedly intentionally walking in front of moving vehicles.

Officers at the time also were dealing with a death, a violation of a restraining order, a call from a screaming drunk man that ended with two people arrested for assault, traffic stops and a search for a reported DUII and reckless driver in the Rockwood neighborhood.

“The sergeant was supervising his officers and floating between the multiple, concurrent priority calls where peoples’ lives were in danger,” Rasmussen said. “As the officers coordinated positive resolutions to the events at hand, they swiftly transitioned to Northeast Morlan Avenue where they effectively handled that call too before moving onto the next.”

Understaffed department

Compounding the problem of dealing with calls is that Gresham is down two officers.

“We may also retire a few officers, which may likely mean we’ll be down again,” Rasmussen noted. To help provide funding for the department, the city of Gresham enacted a Police, Fire and Parks fee to help maintain officer positions. The per-unit fee of $7.50 per month is charged to single-family households, multifamily property owners and businesses on their utility bills.

According to city documents, in fiscal year 2015-16 the city raised more than $3.8 million through the fee. An approximate distribution of that money in the same year was 54 percent to police, 41 percent to fire and five percent to parks.

Partly because of support from the tax, Gresham has nine officers going through the training phases. Four are still in the academy, while the others are learning from a coach officer in the field, which is the next step in the process.

The plan is to release one on a solo patrol in late September, two in late October and one in mid-December. The key, police say, is finding high-quality people who can be put through academy and successfully complete field training, while managing to retain them on staff.

“We are in the process of trying to hire more in order to keep up with attrition,” Rasmussen said.