Marion County Sheriff Jason Myers poses for a photo near his offices on June 10. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)
After nearly 10 years as Marion County sheriff, Jason Myers holds two maxims about the job: there’s more to it than enforcing the law, and it demands good timekeeping.
That’s likely apparent to anyone who has seen the sheriff at town hall meetings at night, still in uniform, talking to constituents – or jogging by the Capitol to talk with lawmakers.
“It’s a really busy job,” the 50-year-old said in a recent sit down with Salem Reporter to discuss his tenure. “My days are typically packed from the very beginning and into the early evening.”
His work days are about to get shorter when he steps down June 30, ending a nearly three-decade-long career with the agency that started as a summer cadet in 1989. Commander Joseph Kast has been selected by Marion County commissioners to step into the job July 1.
Myers reflected on a job that he described as part policeman, part chief executive and part politician.
Any given morning, Myers meets with leaders of the agency’s various divisions. There are more than 350 employees in the sheriff’s office – from administrative assistants to deputies on patrol to corrections deputies at the county’s 415-bed jail and a 144-bed transition center.
Those meetings are often about how well the agency’s rudders are turning amidst the latest changes in laws and policing practices, Myers said.
“I try to listen more than I talk,” he said. “With an organization this size and the nature of the business we do, you have to really meet and plan and follow up on things and be sure you’re bringing whatever the project is in for a landing.”
A recent example: the sheriff’s office started a program to release some inmates and keep jails free for “riskier offenders.” It took months of planning to develop the policy and land federal funding, he said. Meetings chart how the program performs.
“You’ve got to start with baby steps,” Myers said. “Then you get it to where it has fidelity, and that’s where it is today.”
Jail capacity is one of many concerns for law enforcement agencies throughout the country, as are allegations of police misconduct, policing homeless people, recruit shortages or juvenile justice reform. The list is longer than that, but a sheriff’s office is constantly changing, Myers said.
“(The responsibilities) have changed dramatically from when I started to where I’m at today,” he said. “You have community expectations, which is one thing, and you have case law, which is another.”
When Oregon lawmakers pushed for prison reform in 2013, passing House Bill 3194 that cut sentences for some property crimes and allowed low-risk inmates earlier release, Myers was in a minority that welcomed the challenge, recalled Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron.
“There were people digging in their heels saying ‘No way, no way, no way,’ and here’s Jason stepping out in front of the House floor,” Cameron said. “He was right out in front, taking the risk and saying ‘This will work.’”
That bill also helped fund drug and mental health courts.
Policing, Myers noted, is trying to evolve in lockstep with the public as more is understood about behavioral health. The sheriff's office has another new program, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, that pairs cops with social workers.
“We know incarcerating them and putting them in the criminal justice system often doesn’t deal with the issues that they have,” he said. “We have to figure out ways to assess what’s going on and plug them in with the right intervention or treatment, so they can get the help and hopefully avoid the criminal justice system.”
“It’s been a series of just kind of being a continued learner of the profession,” Myers said.
Recruitment has become more difficult lately, Myers said, for “a number of factors.” The job is more scrutinized, and possibly less appealing, than ever. He said officers will do their best in a split-second decision knowing it will be second guessed by "somebody over here who has all the time in the world."
"I think that's a part of what comes into people's heads, 'Hey, do I really want to go into this line of work? With all of these difficult things I have to do, this is just an added stressor,'" he said.
Plus, the booming job market means competition for workers is high.
“It used to be we would open a position and a hundred people applied for one position,” he said. “That’s not the case now.”
Retirement won’t keep Myers from law enforcement. He will continue to represent the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association at the Capitol. He said the association would stay focused on the intersection of law enforcement and behavioral health.
“If we can keep people connected to services, get them the help they need, to address mental health and addiction and their physical health it will keep them out of the criminal justice system,” he said.
Still, Myers hopes to spend more time with family, who often competed with his career for his attention.
Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson said Myers was never afraid to work long nights. She remembered Myers as a detective helping Woodburn track a murder suspect well into the early morning.
“It wasn’t the sheriff’s office case, but when you get that call at 2-o’clock in the morning, you get up and help out that other agency,” she said. “I think that was cemented early for Jason.”
He is looking forward to more family time now. He, his wife and two adult sons enjoy camping, hiking, fishing and water sports he said.
“We just enjoy getting our family together,” he said.
Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.
LOCAL NEWS AND A LOCAL SUBSCRIPTION -- For $10 a month, Salem Reporter provides breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news. Help us grow and get better by subscribing today. Sign up HERE.