Ashland Police Department experiencing ‘significant’ staffing shortage

Ashland Police Chief Tighe O'Meara. Drew Fleming photo
January 13, 2022

Consolidation with Talent under study

Ashland: Where We Are — Ashland Police Department

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

Staffing levels at Ashland Police Department are continuing to drop as the department enters 2022, part of what Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara sees as a national trend of people leaving or avoiding law enforcement careers altogether. He hopes to build back the department ranks this year, despite the trend, but it’s proving more difficult by the day.

The department is budgeted to have at least 28 sworn officers. It currently has 17, down from 22 in November, when O’Meara anticipated more departures coming. The stresses related to the job following the social justice movement surrounding the death of George Floyd, in addition to the fatigue and health impacts from COVID-19 are among the factors leading to reduced staffing rates, O’Meara said.

“We’re significantly down,” O’Meara said Tuesday. “There’s been additional people that have just either resigned from law enforcement or have or are about to walk out the door to go work for other agencies.”

Over the last year, the department has had four senior members of the department leave law enforcement altogether, not retire. That’s an unusual trend, according to O’Meara.

While law enforcement was a popular career post-September 11, 2001, O’Meara said the “pendulum” has shifted over the years and especially during the last two.

“There’s been so much anti-police rhetoric the last couple of years that it’s causing people look for different jobs … it’s causing some people to walk away from police work altogether,” he said.

Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara. Drew Fleming photo

“Historically, once you get into law enforcement, the vast majority of the time you just stay there for your professional career …. It’s unusual to jump into a different line of work and now we’re seeing that more and more.”

The department is able to maintain its minimum staffing level of one supervisor and two officers 24/7, but it’s a struggle, according to O’Meara.

O’Meara also believes the city of Ashland should have at least three officers and a supervisor on staff at all times.

“Right now, we’re just trying to maintain critical services,” O’Meara said. “We haven’t had to tell people that we’re not taking certain call types.

“If it gets much worse, we might have to start picking and choosing what we do,” he added.

COVID-19, social justice impacts 

The department’s budget has also been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last two years, including having staff out at times with COVID-19.

The police’s budget, like other city services, is funded via the city’s Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) and the prepared food tax through the General Fund. When COVID-19 hit southern Oregon and tourism to Ashland slowed down, these revenues dried up. 

This caused the number of funded sworn positions in the PD to drop down to 28, and throughout the past year, the department has experienced senior members departing the department.

“You’ve got good people that are tired of being labeled as bad people so they’ll go do something else where they’re not going to get called that,” O’Meara said.

O’Meara said the department has been responsive to social justice causes, allowing for local demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. O’Meara himself carried a sign during a protest on the Ashland Plaza that said, “Stop Lynching Black People.”

“It’s been an especially challenging time, and with the pandemic and everything, but the police department has been responsive,” O’Meara said.

The Ashland Police Department headquarters building on East Main Street. Drew Fleming photo

Cities study consolidation of police services

Ashland Police also enters 2022 participating in a study directed by the city of Talent to see if it’s viable and worthwhile to consolidate police services. Consolidation of fire services between Talent and Ashland is also being studied.

O’Meara said he has attended several discussions about the concept as it relates to police services and will follow the recommendations of whatever outcome the study finds that is also agreed upon by both communities.

“If the study says that we need to fully explore consolidation to some extent, if that’s what makes the most sense to serve the two communities,  if it can be done in the appropriate, professional way, that the two communities want it to be done, then I’m all in favor of that,” O’Meara said. 

“I really want what’s best for Ashland and best for Talent and best for both police departments,” he added.

Building back staffing

Ashland Police has two personnel attending Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) in Salem that will return for in-house training this year, which will result in more full-time sworn officers to staff the department. 

An officer who is currently a sworn officer is also being considered for a position with the department.

O’Meara said there is a possibility of renewing efforts to have a school resource officer (SRO) in Ashland schools, but only if schools and parents are open to it when staffing levels rebound.

“If we can get the staffing back up to where we want it to be, then that is a goal, but it’s going to take a while to get there,” he said.

Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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