Policing with a personal touch

Officers in Clark County’s small towns enjoy getting to know their residents, and vice versa

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance

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When Betsy the cow is running amok in the streets of Ridgefield, you’d better call Officer Jason Ferriss to get things under control. He knows a guy who can identify the owner of practically any bovine in the county just by description and will do what he can to get Betsy back to pasture.

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Clark County's law enforcement agencies.

Police work in Clark County’s smaller cities looks a little different than it does in Vancouver and some parts of the county patrolled by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Officers in those smaller departments — including Battle Ground, Camas, La Center, Ridgefield and Washougal — generally have more time to patrol their beats, make contacts with citizens and keep an eye out for problems. Patrol officers who work for the big, busier agencies usually spend a larger part of their shifts bouncing from call to call, while specialists follow up on specific crimes.

That’s not to say that one department’s strategy is better than the other.

“It’s just a different way to do the same thing,” said Sgt. Scott Schanaker, a sheriff’s office spokesman. “It’s a different approach.”

It boils down to call volume and resources.

Call load

Ridgefield police officer Ferriss, one of six officers with the department, spent 10 years with Longview police before coming to Ridgefield about four years ago. He said there is a definite difference between how a larger departments works, compared to smaller ones.

“As far as police work, the difference is call load,” Ferriss said. During a typical shift he gets three or four calls, which is a lot less than he would get in Longview, he said.

Sheriff’s deputies “can easily do eight to 12 reports a night, on a busy night,” sheriff’s office spokesman Schanaker said. “Sometimes you’re hopping,” other nights deputies might have one call that takes a lot of time and sometimes deputies work traffic.

“It just really depends,” he said. “It’s the ebb and flow of the calls.”

Officers in Camas see more ebb than flow.

Officer Brent Mayhugh said he spends a lot of time on patrol looking for problems, making contact with people and working traffic — the No. 1 complaint category his department receives.

“It’s a city where you can be more of a proactive officer,” he said.

That means trying to address problems before they happen instead of responding after they do, he said.

One of his recent projects was watching a stop sign in front of Prune Hill Elementary School. Mayhugh thought a few people might be rolling through the stop. After watching the intersection for more than a month and making several stops he thinks people are starting to get the point. He hopes his work will prevent a pedestrian from getting hit there.

Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey said those lower call volumes also mean that patrol officers can get to less-serious crimes.

“We still go on every call. Many agencies find they have to prioritize and can’t go on those lower-priority calls,” Lackey said. “If you call 911 here in Camas, no matter how small your problem might seem, we’ll send an officer to the house and the officer will try to fix the problem.”

Types of crime

La Center Police Chief Tim Hopkin has been working for the department since 1985. At the time, there was only one other officer. Today his department has 13 people on staff, including two civilian clerks. That works out to be about three officers for every 1,000 people in town, he said. Most other departments in the county hover somewhere around one officer per 1,000 residents.

Most cases his department sees are minor theft, malicious mischief and domestic violence, Hopkin said.

That falls in line with basic calls with other departments.

Ridgefield officer Ferriss said he dealt with rapes, shootings, bar fights and other serious crimes in Longview. He doesn’t really see that sort of crime happening in Ridgefield.

“Here, I think the threshold is a little lower for the type of stuff I respond to,” he said. Now he spends a lot of his time with neighbor problems, animal complaints and traffic enforcement. Some of those things weren’t always handled in person at Longview, he said.

One time a man stopped by the station and told Ferriss a neighbor was upset because a cat was pooping in his sandbox.

Ferris investigated.

There was a language barrier, Ferris said, but the neighbor said there wasn’t a problem.

Then, Ferriss returned to the man who reported the problem to get more information.

At his doorstep, the man closed the door behind him. His eyes were wide and Ferriss could smell marijuana.

He discussed the cat, went back to the police station, got a search warrant and returned to the home. Turns out the man had a grow operation, Ferriss said.

“That reinforced that you never know what kind of call you’re going to get or what it’s going to turn into,” he said.

Residents seem to appreciate seeing their police force out on those calls.

Ridgefield resident Clyde Burkle said he hasn’t had any direct interactions with police in his hometown, but he feels safe knowing they’re out there.

“As a citizen that (seeing them out on patrol) provides me with a good feeling,” he said. “For a small town, I think we have a very competent department.”

Familiar faces

Spending a lot of time in the community and talking with citizens means that many cops in small towns know just about everybody.

Camas’ Mayhugh said he gets to know residents and “bad guys” in his city. Those “bad guys” also know him — and other officers in the department — by name and their personalities. They like certain officers and not others, he said.

On a recent shift, Mayhugh saw a group of young men walking back from the Camas Municipal Court. He stopped his car and checked in with the men, some of whom he’d arrested before, to see how they were doing at home, work and with the courts. The men knew Mayhugh by name. Some answered his questions openly, others were more guarded with their responses.

Making connections is part of the small-town policing Mayhugh enjoys. He said talking with people generates leads and helps build a rapport with residents.

What goes where

Ridgefield’s Ferriss has a pretty good idea what cars belong where and who is who in Ridgefield. Sometimes he’ll spend part of his shift looking for out-of-place vehicles or other things that just don’t belong.

“I kind of know what should be parked where,” he said. “In a small town you kind of get to know people.”

Jim Maul lives just outside the Ridgefield city limits, but says he still benefits from the police department.

“I believe that our department … is doing a really good job,” he said. “From a traffic standpoint, our kids are safe moving around town.”

Maul said he sees officers around town who serve as reminders for people to be good.

“If I had something negative to say, I would,” Maul said. “I have the highest respect for their professionalism.”