Entire Wheeler County Sheriff’s Office resigns

Chris Humphreys

Wheeler County Sheriff Chris Humphreys is resigning his post — and all of his deputies are going with him.

Humphreys, who was elected to the position in 2013, gave notice to the Wheeler County Court earlier this month that he wished to leave his position. He said he will give the county 4-6 months to find a replacement, but is ready to leave at any time. He said all three of his full-time deputies — Roy Nelson, Russell Mathiasen, and undersheriff Dave Dobler — will also leave the agency. Michael Boyd, a retired Prineville police chief who worked a few days a month, is also resigning. That means the entire law enforcement community in the county of 1,500 people and 1,700 square miles is headed out the door.

Humphreys said the mass exodus is not ideal, and it’s not what he had in mind. Once he decided to resign, he recommended all his deputies consider the job of sheriff, and he pledged his support to each. There were no takers, however.

“It’s just kind of like when a band breaks up,” he said. “When one person leaves no one else wants to be here. And by here I mean in law enforcement ... no one wants to be here without each other.”

He said each deputy was being recruited by larger agencies, and he understood why they would not want to take on the extra responsibility, paperwork and politics that comes with a sheriff’s position.

“It’s a lot,” he said. “I’m just exhausted ... I’m doing all the administrative stuff at 2 p.m., then getting called out at 2 a.m., and trying to work again the next day.”

Matt English, Hood River County Sheriff and president of the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association, said law enforcement in much of rural Oregon — and Wheeler County in particular — is stretched very thin.

“I went out and spent some time there,” he said. “Resource-wise, they don’t have anything. They can’t pay well, the living conditions are not great. They don’t have funding. ... It’s one of the struggles they are having in rural counties across the state.”

There are also more demands on their time, and a steadily decreasing base of volunteers for fire, paramedic and police positions. As more people are recreating in Oregon’s rural places, calls for emergency response to far-flung locales and dispatches for search and rescue are increasing exponentially. Just last month, Humphreys’ entire staff, as well as a slim volunteer crew, was out overnight searching for a local woman who had a medical emergency while walking. They found her — a “needle in a haystack” according to Humphreys — and saved her life. But the whole crew still had their administrative duties to get to, and overtime costs are not in the budget.

“It’s just impossible, and exhausting,” said Humphreys.

“I empathize with him how difficult it is,” said English.

English said in Hood River County his office must respond to emergencies in and along the nearby Hood and Columbia rivers, to Mt. Hood and the national forest.

“It’s the impact of tourism on rural counties,” said English. “We are to breaking points. There is so much impact on our resources, and Wheeler County is the same ... our deputies are getting pulled out of neighborhoods for recreational events ... and local taxpayers don’t like that.”

He said the sheriff’s association is considering legislation for the 2019 session that could add taxes on the hospitality industry to help fund public safety. The exact look of that legislation has not yet been decided.

Whatever it is, it didn’t come soon enough to provide financial stability and quality of life to the Wheeler County Sheriff’s Office, though Humphreys notes there were plenty of issues that led to this point. He said perhaps someone else could have handled the political issues better than he did, and another sheriff could have made a more impactful plea for additional funding.

Wheeler County Judge Lynn Morley did not return a call by press time about the issue. Wheeler County Commissioner Rob Ordway said that he has “always supported law enforcement and public safety,” but said he had no plan to replace Humphreys, nor did he know how the sheriff’s office would be able to provide law enforcement with the loss of the three deputies. There are no other municipal police departments in the county. An Oregon State Police officer based in Condon can respond to emergencies, but cannot commit to working full-time in just one rural county.

For Humphreys, part of the reason he is leaving has nothing to do with funding or politics. He said he plans to remain in Wheeler County, where his family has lived for five generations, and said he will be happy to give up a career in law enforcement.

“Believe me when I say I am not worried about not being a cop,” he said.

Humphreys said it has been a devastating year for the agency. He has a hard time shaking the 2017 Memorial Day weekend fatal crash that killed two Gypsy Joker motorcyclists and injured many others, which he described as the most “horrific” and “brutal” of his career. He was driving just behind the convoy when the crash occurred.

“It was tough and there was some people that saved some lives that night,” he said, though noting it was a scene public responders hope to avoid their entire career. And the long, stressful, dangerous court process that emanated from it was additionally taxing, he said.

Humphreys has spent his career in law enforcement. As a Portland police officer, he faced scrutiny for two separate on-the-job incidents in 2006 and 2009, and also gained notoriety for his involvement in a $1.6 million settlement against the city after a mentally ill man died in police custody, according to The Oregonian.

He said he is worn out and leaving the profession. He doesn’t know how law enforcement and public safety will operate in Wheeler County in the future, though he is willing to give the county a few months to come up with a plan.

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