PENDLETON — If you occasionally enjoy — emphasis on “enjoy” — a concert in a public venue, there’s a reason.
And if you attended the launch concert of this year’s Pendleton Round-Up, there were at least 21 of those reasons in uniform on Saturday night.
Uniforms with guns and badges that the average concert fan barely notices, when things go right.
And things mostly do go right early on, noted Officer Tim Bennett, spokesman for the Walla Walla Police Department and a longtime law enforcement presence at the Round-Up. “But you should be here for the rodeo … those are wild. Fireworks and bulls and snot and beer.”
Bennett, a Pendleton native, has been using some of his vacation time for more than two decades to work the town’s renowned hoopla as extra law-enforcement muscle for the Umatilla County’s Sheriff’s Reserves program.
Even on the rough nights when every other person seems to have been over-imbibing, the duty gives him a chance to reconnect with old friends, he pointed out.
“Tim knows everyone on both sides of the fence,” agreed Bill Miller, coordinator of the Sheriff’s Reserves program.
Security at concerts such as this year’s, performed by country artists Jake Owen and Lonestar in the Round-Up’s Happy Canyon arena, is a complex and layered effort, Miller explained. His force, most of whom have day jobs and some of whom are retired, supports and supplements the Sheriff’s Office on a volunteer basis. Such men and women must undergo training and know how to use and be authorized to carry weapons, as well as pass testing and background checks.
With only seven full-time Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office deputies to cover 3,200 square miles, 13 reserve officers get plenty of time in, said Sgt. Tim Roberts, second-in-command for the Reserves program.
While regular reserve officers receive a monthly stipend and extra-duty officers like Bennett get paid an hourly wage, they really do it because they love it, Roberts said. “Everyone want to be part of this.”
For nights like this, Miller and Roberts pull in officers from all over the region. Union, Morrow and Umatilla counties, plus individual towns like Enterprise, Stanfield, Hermiston – and Walla Walla — are represented on this evening’s payroll.
Working Round-Up events also goes a long way in paying the bills for training, uniforms, vehicles and other Sheriff’s Reserves expenses, Miller said.
This night, for example, will put more than $3,100 in the program’s coffers at $25 an hour for 125 man hours. That sum, and the rest of the week’s security costs, gets paid by a couple of Round-Up entities, including the Professional Bull Riding rodeo and Happy Canyon pageant. “Usually more money is spent than received by the Reserves.”
Saturday’s security begins at 5:30 p.m. for Bennett and others, including the “Yellow Shirts” of the Rovers Security company from Portland, also here to maintain peace and order — particularly near the bar stations.
Indeed,16-ounce cups of beer are everywhere right from the get-go. “Hard alcohol has been served here for a few years, too,” Bennett said. “It’s all about the money. This couldn’t make it if it weren’t for the alcohol. Which is pretty sad.”
Nonetheless, over-drinking is not the issue it once was, he and Miller said. Recent changes in age limits at some at some Round-Up functions eased the issue considerably, Miller said. “That took the pressure off.”
His department has worked with vendors and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to educate staff about serving age-appropriate customers and not “over serving,” he added.
Yet some people will drink too much and a fraction of those folks will turn mean. Domestic violence in the concert audience is not unheard of, but also not the norm, Bennett said. “As long as people aren’t falling over, or puking. The kind of thing that concerns us is if it looks like they’re going to drive away.”
Bennett is booked as a roaming officer, but it’s more of a stop-and-go. He gets stopped every few feet by a handshake or a hug. Eventually, however, Bennett completes his route before starting over. He begins by threading through the back of the Happy Canyon set, navigating through the attached Pendleton Convention Center, out past the bands’ tour buses, a brisk walk through the parking lot, back under the grandstand and then in front of the stage to support the two officers stationed there.
As Owen and his band leave the stage, Bennett rushes to beat the crowd to the vendor area where most people seem bent on getting several refills of beer before Lonestar begins. Despite the fluid ounces going down, it’s a well-behaved crowd, he said.
In another 15 minutes or so, it’s time for Bennett and three other deputies to escort Owen and his musicians to their bus after the band has signed autographs before beginning another security round.
Up and down steel stairs, back and forth in long hallways and Bennett returns to the venue’s “party” seating as Lonestar ramps up. The crowd in the grandstands is undulating to the music.
Surprisingly, the most expensive seats — folding chairs — have hosted about the biggest security headache of evening. Upon the insistence of a couple of Round-Up directors, those who have crowded the stage to be fawn over lead singer Richie McDonald must be asked to return to their seats so that everyone can see.
Not to mention make room for dancing with strangers when passing by with another beer refill.
The trio of officers, including Tad Butcher of Union County and Ivan Duke of the Umatilla Police Department, heads into the shoulder-to-shoulder mass. The minute the front of the arena is cleared, the crowd flows back. The three men make a second pass, then a third. Bennett loses a smidgeon of his professional smile this time, taking a firm stand with the die-hards who insist they paid good money to stand by the crowd. “Sit down,” he commands a knot of young women and refuses to move on until they have done so.
Eventually a compromise is reached with directors and the reserve force — consensus is that fans did indeed buy the up-front seats for the chance to shove cellphone cameras above their heads and attempt to get McDonald to touch their outstretched fingertips.
“We fight this kind of battle ever year,” Bennett said.
He’ll continue working Round-Up, including the rowdier rodeo, until about 3 a.m. Sunday, Bennett said this morning. “It’s going to be a really long week.”