The Oregonian, Tuesday, November 4, 1997

While clerks were denied help, arrest warrants kept piling up

  • A staff shortage since summer has resulted in 6,000 unprocessed warrants in Multnomah County - putting police and the public at risk

    By J. Todd Foster
    of The Oregonian staff

    Thousands of people accused of crimes in Multnomah County are roaming the streets unbeknownst to police because there are not enough trained records clerks to process their arrest warrants.

    An estimated 6,062 unprocessed warrants put not only the public at risk but also police: They can't know whether the motorist they stop is wanted for a more serious crime.

    Although most warrants are for misdemeanors, the five-month backlog includes sex offenders and weapons violators, arsonists and robbers, according to interviews and records obtained by The Oregonian.

    After inquiries from upset judges, Sheriff Dan Noelle last month blamed the clerical gridlock on a records unit administrator. She and other records managers said they have complained of the backlog since summer.

    Memos show they began documenting concerns about short staffing in early September.

    The administrator, Kristi Johnston, said she took overall staffing concerns to sheriff's Cmdr. Vera Pool two years ago, and they were validated by an outside consultant in early 1996.

    Pool, who heads the corrections support division, insisted during summer staff meetings that the backlog was not an "emergency," said Johnston, supervisor Teresa Taplin and operations administrator Joyce Griffin.

    Johnston and the other managers agreed to discuss the warrant backlog as whistle-blowers, protected by law from retaliation.

    They say not only has Pool refused to deal with the warrant backlog, but she also has hired at least two unqualified friends to help in the records office. One temporary hire was a security risk because he was caught flashing gang signs at inmates being booked into jail, the managers said.

    Telephone calls to Pool, who has been acting as sheriff several days in Noelle's absence, were not returned.

    Multnomah County Circuit Judge James Ellis said he learned of the warrants backlog last month while checking on the whereabouts of a three-time convicted drunken driver. The man had failed to report for work release and alcohol treatment.

    "Every one of these is a potential death for a person because they go out and get drunk again," Ellis said. "We've got to have a plan to get this thing fixed. It's just part of a system that's overtaxed."

    Gresham Police Chief Bernie Giusto said he is trying to determine how many unprocessed warrants originated with his agency. His main concern is officer safety.

    Officers rarely call for backup when a motorist has no outstanding warrants. But a criminal could assume the officer is aware of the warrant and flee or resist arrest.

    "It's an officer safety issue, it really is," Giusto said.

    When a judge issues an arrest warrant, it goes to the sheriff's records unit at the Justice Center. Clerks must be certified by the state to key in criminal information. They use a computer program created this year called the Sheriff's Warrant and Inmate System. From there, the warrant is sent electronically to state and national computer systems to alert all law enforcement.

    The warrants began piling up in June and number about 6,062.

    After complaining last summer during staff meetings, Johnston began documenting her concerns Sept. 11, when the backlog numbered 3,200.

    She wrote Pool that the entire records system was bogging down because of increased inmate bookings and releases; bugs in the new computer system; untrained, inexperienced employees replacing veterans; and staff vacations, extended injuries and illness.

    "At our last meeting we requested some temporary assistance," Johnston wrote Pool on Sept. 11. "The sooner we get them in place the quicker we can catch up."

    She suggested rehiring temporary employee Joanne Twilleager, who is state-certified to punch in bench warrant information and is fast enough to process 100 warrants a night, Johnston said.

    On Sept. 18, Johnston wrote Pool urging that nearly 10 full-time employee positions allocated in the budget be filled and the hires trained immediately. She also asked that a supervisor's position be reinstated so that at least one supervisor would be available on every shift, seven days a week.

    "These issues need immediate attention," Johnston wrote.

    On Sept. 26, Pool's first and only written response to managers was that warrants "shall be given a top priority without exception." Pool indicated that all job vacancies were filled and that no more employees would be hired.

    On Oct. 17, Johnston, Griffin and operations administrator Kathy Walliker wrote Pool that staffing concerns had become an "emergency."

    They noted that 18 new employees had joined the records unit since May, when the sheriff consolidated his jail records division with the law enforcement records division.

    But some experienced employees took early retirement, and the newcomers still are being trained, which takes six months. One employee is on maternity leave and others are ill, the managers said.

    Warrants were not getting done because booking and releasing prisoners "must be given priority," the managers wrote. They urged Pool to rehire Twilleager instead of using other unqualified temporary hires.

    One such hire -- a family friend of Pool -- could not work full-time because of his bus schedule, the managers said.

    Another, Derek Baldwin, quit in June after deputies complained of his interaction with prisoners, according to Johnston, Griffin, Taplin and another supervisor who didn't want to be named.

    On Oct. 23, Chief Criminal Judge Frank Bearden wrote all circuit and district judges that Noelle had apologized for the warrant backlog. In a memo, the sheriff attributed the problem to Johnston, who he said had decided to not make warrants a priority, and said the records unit would be caught up by year's end.

    But Johnston fired back another memo Thursday, telling Noelle of her frustrations and how she had gone repeatedly to Pool for help.

    Johnston's problems with Pool go back to July, when she says the commander demoted her out of retaliation for voicing staffing concerns.

    Before the Multnomah County Merit System Civil Service Council could rule, the sheriff reinstated Johnston to program administrator in the records office.

    "The warrant backlog is a serious public safety issue," Johnston said Monday. "It is an injustice to victims of crime, as well as jeopardizing the lives of police officers working in Multnomah County."

    Pool, 51, came under fire last week from the corrections officers' union after receiving only a written reprimand for the negligent early release of an acquaintance from the Justice Center jail. Noelle overruled an independent investigator who found that Pool violated the sheriff's ethics policy.

    The Multnomah County Corrections Officers Association says Pool should have been charged criminally with official misconduct for accepting a free Trail Blazers ticket last year and using frequent-flier miles accrued on county business.

    Union President Darcy Bjork, a jail sergeant, said he and the union's attorney are demanding a criminal investigation of Pool by the Oregon attorney general's office. They also are asking the Oregon Ethics Commission to step in.

    "We've yet to see an independent third party review this, and the one that did was overruled," Bjork said.


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