More than 200 Morrow County residents showed up at a meeting last week to talk about crime in the city of Heppner, and potential solutions to the concerns many community members have.
The complaints have ranged from a perceived increase in criminal mischief and vandalism to drug use, to an influx of people that are not working or attempting to get jobs.
The meeting was organized by county commissioner Melissa Lindsay, the City of Heppner and the Heppner Chamber of Commerce.
Lindsay said there had been a growing conversation in several different circles about those issues. She added that there were also two parks in Heppner that were vandalized recently.
“For me, instead of everyone talking and complaining, let’s come together and find a solution,” she said.
Community members agreed to form two groups — a neighborhood watch group and a community pride organization.
Both Morrow County Sheriff Ken Matlack and Undersheriff John Bowles were at the meeting.
Bowles said he hadn’t noticed any major spikes in the number of calls the sheriff’s office gets for property crime.
“Criminal mischief is basically vandalism calls,” he said. “I don’t see those increasing at all.”
The sheriff’s office compiled data from 2015 to 2018, looking at calls from January to August in each of those four years. In 2015 there were 19 criminal mischief calls, dipping to four in 2016, and holding at 15 calls in 2017 and 2018.
Calls for juvenile complaints were similarly irregular, with 17 in 2015, 16 in 2016, 46 in 2017 and 29 in 2018.
“We really encourage people to call and report, so we’re seeing a lot more people calling,” Bowles said.
He said he doesn’t attribute problems in the community to any one specific group, though he did say a couple of groups of teens have been contacted multiple times about vandalism.
Morrow County District Attorney Justin Nelson said he heard several comments from people who said they feel like the community has changed.
“One emphasis was, ‘The town seems different than when I grew up here,’’ he said. “People are concerned about people walking around at all hours of the night, people living on assistance with no jobs, not required to look.”
Jean Bailey, a Heppner resident, said she was raised in the community, moved away for many years, and recently moved back.
“It’s a completely different community,” she said.
“When you live in a rural community, there’s no jobs, and people can live off public assistance,” said Bailey. She said the community is concerned that such people have moved to Heppner in recent years and are causing trouble.
Nelson said it’s hard to pinpoint what has changed.
“When I was growing up, a lot of people worked, but there was a mill,” he said. He added that drugs are an issue in the area. But he said he has not seen an increase in violent crime.
“Do I think there are more major assaults or sex crimes? No,” Nelson said. “But crimes that affect complete bystanders, people wake up and their stuff’s gone.”
He said some people are also interested in having 24/7 coverage in Heppner. The town does not have its own police force, and contracts with the sheriff’s office.
According to data from MCSO, the department is contracted to provide 320 hours of law enforcement coverage to Heppner each month, but often provides more.
Community members agreed to start two groups they feel will address their concerns: a neighborhood watch group and a community pride group.
The neighborhood watch will be similar to those in many communities, with residents serving as the facilitators.
Lindsay said those groups are starting to be organized.
“Citizens want to step up, and help put more eyes on more places,” Lindsay said.
They also plan to start a community pride group, aimed at steering young residents away from bad behavior.
Nelson said one suggestion he liked was the idea of being more vigilant in schools.
“Saying, here’s what the juvenile system’s like — you don’t want to be a part of it.”
Bowles said he doesn’t feel the issues in the community are a cause for concern.
“I feel like it’s an opportunity for us to say, ‘We’ve addressed these issues. This is what we’ve done, and what we do moving forward.’”
Lindsay said no immediate plans for that group have been made.
She said they plan to have another community meeting in six to eight months to assess the community’s progress.