Umatilla County Sheriff's Office trains new marksmen

Instructor Cliff Pease watches as Capt. Stuart Harp practices shooting from the seated position during training for the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office's new designated marksman program.

The Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office is developing a team of sharpshooters.

Sheriff Terry Rowan said the “designated marksman program” is new but aims to fill a crucial need for crack shot officers who can respond to local crises.

The Oregon State Sheriff’s Association pushed the initiative this year, Rowan explained, for sheriffs to develop teams with sharpshooting skills.

“There has been a little bit bigger push to create these regional specialized teams,” Rowan said.

Beyond having interests in such a program, he said, the key was for agencies that could equip and train officers. Rowan, who serves on the association’s executive committee, said Umatilla County could handle it.

The team consists of four members: Capt. Stewart Harp, Lt. Thoren Hearn, detective Erik Palmer and retired court security officer Cliff Pease, who also has a military background. The sheriff’s office has not made a public splash about the program. But Wednesday, Hearn approached the county board of commissioners for approval to purchase 16,000 rounds of ammunition for $8,021.50. He said the bulk purchase would provide ammo for training, on-duty deputies and the designated marksman program.

Harp said the sheriff’s office has been mum on the marksman team because it remains in development. Rowan said the unit is too new to send out, so the first call for a tactical police response would go to the Pendleton Police Department SWAT team and the next to Oregon State Police SWAT.

But both teams take time to assemble and get in place, particularly the state team, whose members live throughout Oregon. Harp said the standoff with a homicide suspect in January 2017 at a Pendleton hotel exemplifies the need for a local approach.

Police from Pendleton, Hermiston and the sheriff’s office waited long hours for the Oregon State Police SWAT to provide crucial support. He said that incident sparked discussion in the sheriff’s office about the glaring need for a faster response with officers who have the proper training and equipment.

“Sometimes the only way to address that is to step up and do it,” he said. “I had the opportunity to step in and develop the program.”

Rowan said the team members earlier this year took 48 hours of “pretty extensive” shooting training over several days and they train every month. Their main weapons are .308 rifles. Almost half of the cost of the ammunition was for 4,000 .308 Winchester rounds.

Rowan said the team is not a fiscal burden for the sheriff’s office. The ammo purchase was in the budget. And he said the sheriff’s office gives guns it confiscates to reputable arms dealers after criminal cases conclude. In exchange, he said, the dealers give a discount on the cost of new equipment. Simply put, the sheriff’s office is using weapons from bad guys to help arm and outfit its own.

The program could one day expand, he also said, but at this time it was difficult to say what the end result would look like. Still, he and Harp were positive about the team’s potential.

“I’m really excited,” Harp said, “about what it will bring to our community.”

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