Malheur County’s unease over high-profile crimes needs government focus

Police take cover behind an armored car during a standoff last week in Ontario. Police leaders should move quickly to reassure the community and halt the perception the local area is dangerous. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

The sight of an armored police vehicle and helmeted police officers in an Ontario neighborhood is jarring. For the second time in recent weeks, the community has been disrupted by men who don’t want to obey police and who put citizens and officers at risk. Citizens are rightfully asking: What’s going on?

These high-profile incidents leave an imprint on people. When kids are locked down in an elementary school, streets are blocked off with police cars and people are kept from their home for hours, life isn’t normal. That is especially true at the start of the long holiday break. The blame for last week’s episode rests with one person – the man police sought in connection with an attempted murder.

Xavier R. Machuca knows the drill. He’s been arrested before, and been convicted. When police ask you to surrender, you surrender. You don’t put an entire neighborhood at jeopardy. And this comes hours after a man showed up at the local hospital, shot in the face for reasons that aren’t public yet. The victim described being driven to a remote area of town and gunned down point blank.

A month ago, Ontario endured another hours-long episode that started with a routine traffic stop, ramped up into a roadside shooting, and eventually the suicide of the wanted man. Again, a neighborhood was disrupted, officers were put in jeopardy, and citizens began to wonder what’s become of the community. On social media posts, some are leaving blunt remarks: Time to get out.

As the Enterprise reported earlier, police suspect a new street gang has arrived in the county. That always holds the prospect for trouble as gangs posture for control and respect. So far, it’s unclear what gang affiliations – if any – the recent suspects have had or what roles gangs played in the disruptions.

Now public officials need to step forward to address the community unease. Law enforcement, including the Ontario Police Department, the Nyssa Police Department, the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office and Oregon State Police, should present a united front to the community. In unison, they should be candid with the public about what the risks are now. They need to be clear how they are reacting to those risks – and what help they need from the community.

Part of their duty is to calm people. Recent statistics from the Ontario agency don’t suggest the city’s gotten out of control. Through October, the agency has so far this year logged the same number of gang incidents as last year – 115. Notably, reports of assaults are way down – 84 in the first 10 months reported compared to 153 a year ago. And overall, the police are getting fewer calls in Ontario – 1,272 so far this year, down 35 percent from a year ago.

On the surface, this suggests Ontario and Malheur County aren’t places so dangerous that people ought to flee. Yet perceptions are hard to erase, and all the work underway to build the local economy is diminished if people just don’t feel safe living here. We hope local officials understand the risk to the community’s reputation and will forthrightly and aggressively address the worries now on the minds of more and more people.            – LZ