MILTON-FREEWATER — A crowd of frustrated, embittered but hopeful county residents streamed into a crowded hall on Friday night for a community safety meeting geared at fighting crime, especially in the rural areas.
“We have come through everything. We have been through it. We have been hit hard as a community. We are hurting and to be quite frank we are all pissed...” McKenzie Marly, the daughter of homicide victim Rob Carter, said to a crowd of about 250 people.
The meeting was the second held last week, with a similar one held in Umapine on Wednesday that drew 150 people.
“There is power by numbers. I honestly believe that people working together can do wonderful things,” Marly added.
Friday’s two-hour meeting came 10 days after the home invasion attack of Joyce Key, 79, who was discovered Jan. 30 in her home with bleeding head wounds that left her in critical condition.
According to a family statement, Key remains in much the same condition she was found in, with brain swelling preventing her from responding in any way.
Members of the Key family were planning to read the statement at Friday’s meeting. But there were too many who wanted to speak against the crime that has become commonplace in their lives.
“We, along with our neighbors, are afraid and worried. It has gotten to the point where we just expect theft in our area because law enforcement does not have the resources to carry a presence in our community,” the Key family wrote in their statement, which was provided to the Union-Bulletin after the meeting.
Like the majority of the attendees, the Keys were also hopeful that people would begin to organize and become proactive against crime by building relationships with neighbors.
“I think this is fantastic. This is exactly what needs to happen. I am sad at what it took for this to come about, but if there is a bright spot this it,” Brian Key said.
Other hopeful news came when Oregon state Rep. Greg Smith announced that Umatilla County would get more support from state police.
“Starting the first of March, Oregon State Police are going to be adding three new troopers to Umatilla County. That is good news. But that is only a small piece of the puzzle. So what I want to do now is know who wants to come up and talk a little,” Smith said.
Smith’s announcement of more troopers came early in the meeting. What followed for a solid two hours were frustrated comments and questions over issues dealing with keeping suspects in jails, giving tougher sentences for offenders, shutting down housing where repeated crimes occur, reducing the response time for deputies and even pleas for help with arming themselves.
“Will you help people arm themselves so they can protect themselves?” one retired man asked. Then later he added, “Man, you can’t be there in five minutes most of the time. If you can get there in half an hour it’s a miracle. And stuff is done in half an hour.”
“Stick them in jail and keep them in there,” another man said.
“What more can we do about these houses that we know are hotbeds for illegal activity,” a woman asked.
With an area of 3,300 square miles and a population of 77,000, about six to seven deputies cover Umatilla County.
The result, according to Sheriff Terry Rowan, who has been in office for only one month and who regularly patrols the county, is an officer-to-citizen ratio that isn’t sufficient.
Other county government and law enforcement officials who attended the meeting included county commissioners, the district attorney and Milton-Freewater’s police chief and city manager.
As for reducing deputy response times, Commissioner Larry Givens and Smith painted a dismal picture of funding at local and state levels. But they also encouraged residents to become active in community watch programs and to work to get to know neighbors.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Umapine Mercantile co-owner Dawna Tate said they were committed to doing just that.
“I think everybody was happy to finally get together,” Tate said. “We are going to make our neighborhood safe.”
On Feb. 18, the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office will hold a community watch program meeting.
Details are available through the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office.
U-B reporter Luke Hegdal contributed to this story.