The Associated Press

PENDLETON — When someone tried to break into her house earlier this month, Merrie Ralph called the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office for help only to be told by a dispatcher there wasn’t a deputy on duty.

“I said, ‘What? Excuse me?’” she told the East Oregonian newspaper.

A deputy called her two hours later but no one came out to the house, she said.

“This is uncalled for. Our tax money is supposed to be paying for our county to protect us. If it won’t or can’t, what are we supposed to do?”

Umatilla County Undersheriff Terry Rowan, who will become the new sheriff in 2013, said the office should be taking cases, regardless of how small.

But “it’s no secret we are significantly understaffed,” he said, adding that the situation isn’t likely to change without more money.

“As it stands right now, we try to have three (patrols) for the west end of the county and three for the north end of the county,” Rowan told the newspaper.

But the department is spread so thin there are times when only one deputy is covering the county’s 3,231 square miles, and even occasions when no deputy is on duty, the East Oregonian reported.

The standard in police work is to have about 1.5 to 1.8 officers per 1,000 people, Rowan said. The ratio in the Umatilla Sheriff’s Office is closer to one officer per 3,000.

The office’s criminal division budget of $1.4 million pays for the sheriff, undersheriff, one lieutenant, one sergeant, three detectives and six patrol officers, plus equipment and training, the newspaper reported.

Judy Haste said she waited almost an hour for a Umatilla County sheriff’s deputy Sept. 17 while she prevented three burglary suspects from fleeing her property on the Oregon side of Stateline Road near Milton-Freewater. Haste used her car to block the suspects on a bridge, the only exit from the property, according to sheriff’s reports. Walla Walla County sheriff’s deputies and Oregon State Police arrived before anyone from the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office.

Rowan said he sympathizes with country residents who want to get the services their tax dollars pay for. For Haste, the Sheriff’s Office ended up sending a reserve deputy to the scene. Reserves play a vital role in supporting the Sheriff’s Office, but they’re not employees who work regular shifts, Rowan said.

Other police also feel the pinch when the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t respond. Hermiston police, Oregon State Police and the Morrow County Sheriff’s Office recently helped catch burglary suspects who fled from a property outside Hermiston. State police ended up arresting three people.

Rowan said before he takes the reins in January, he plans to talk to each member of the Sheriff’s Office about how he wants to operate the agency.

But he told the newspaper that without money for more deputies, much of the criminal work the Sheriff’s Office does will be akin to plugging a hole here and there in a leaking dam.