ONTARIO – Memories chase Oregon State Police Lt. Mark Duncan.
As he reflects on his 30-year career, there is the memory of the local man trapped under a tractor, yet still alive.
“That was hard to watch,” he said.
Emergency workers realized if they lifted the tractor off, the man would die. If they didn’t, he was still going to die. Police called his family. They arrived and huddled around the man as he said his goodbyes.
Then the tractor was lifted. He died moments later.
“You can’t unsee death. You can’t unwitness when someone takes their last breath,” he said.
Then there is the case of the kidnapped woman from Florida. When Duncan was a trooper he pulled a semi-truck over for a minor light violation.
“I investigated the driver for DUI (driving under the influence). I arrested him,” said Duncan.
Duncan went back to the cab of the truck to search for evidence of alcohol. He then discovered a middle-aged woman in the sleeper of the truck.
The woman was nearly beaten to death. She’d been raped repeatedly.
“That one was a Life Flight,” said Duncan slowly.
The 52-year-old state police leader said the memories are “too many to list.”
“Crimes against children are always tough. Death notifications are not fun,” he said.
Duncan plans to leave the state police in June and he said after careful thought he believes the time is right to exit.
“So, 30 years and six months is a long time. I could just feel it was time to do something else,” said Duncan.
Duncan, echoing Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, who announced his retirement earlier this month, said the recent state reforms regarding police and drug laws played a role in his decision.
“The state is going in a direction I don’t align with,” said Duncan.
Duncan said new laws, such as Ballot Measure 110 which reduced penalties for personal possession of illegal narcotics, harm the state.
“I don’t agree with the state’s handling of our drug laws. I don’t agree with the state’s handling of the homeless situation,” he said.
Duncan said state laws, over time, have restricted the tools police use to stop criminals.
“I feel there is a lack of accountability and it ties law enforcement’s hands which renders it ineffective to a degree. Law enforcement becomes reactive rather than proactive,” said Duncan.
That’s bad for residents that Duncan and his team have sworn to protect, he said.
There is a disconnect, he said, between the reality on the road troopers encounter and those who craft state laws.
“We have people in political positions that have no idea what we see and go through every day yet they are rendering opinions when they don’t understand what we do,” said Duncan.
Duncan said a good example are new traffic laws regarding police. A law passed last year by the Oregon Legislature barred police from pulling a motorist over based solely if they have a burned-out vehicle light.
“Those are safety issues on a vehicle and 99% of the time warnings are given. But those are tools we can use to find criminal behavior, to remove bad actors from the community,” said Duncan.
More and more tools, he said, are being taken from police.
“Making a cell phone ticket more of a fine then possession of less than two grams of meth or heroin or possession of a meth pipe with residue and it isn’t even a citation, that is unacceptable,” said Duncan.
He said he regrets that there are not more programs that link police with youth.
“There has to be a direct relationship between law enforcement and our young,” he said.
He said he also felt it was important to retire on his own terms.
“I don’t want to retire a bitter trooper. I want to retire with my head held high, knowing I stood strong in my beliefs and still have a positive attitude,” said Duncan.
Born in northern Idaho, Duncan grew up in Albany and initially went to college to be an accountant.
He attended two colleges before he reached Treasure Valley Community College in the early 1990s. That’s when he met then-Ontario Police Chief Jim Jones.
“He said, you don’t want to be an accountant, you want to be a cop,” said Duncan.
Duncan’s first police job was as a dispatcher for the Weiser and Ontario Police Departments. He joined the Oregon State Police in 1992.
“I just looked at the career opportunities for what I wanted to do and I recognized more growth potential,” said Duncan in explaining the switch.
He continued to work as a dispatcher for the state police. In 1995 he became a trooper and transferred to Ontario. He was promoted to lieutenant – the top slot at the Ontario station – in 2012.
Duncan supervises 46 people, including troopers and staff in the outposts in Burns and John Day.
In his career Duncan said he’s learned a lot about people.
“I think there are a lot of good Americans. I love the variety of individuals out there that give me a broadened perspective,” he said.
Duncan said one key motivator during his career was exceeding expectations.
“I am a very driven person. When people say I can’t do something I work extra hard. I am very determined to prove naysayers wrong,” he said.
Duncan said he is proud to be outspoken on some issues.
“A lot of people will complain behind the scenes but I’ve taken on the tiger based on what’s right,” he said.
Duncan said he will miss the men and women he works with.
He said he will also miss “serving with a purpose.”
“I get fulfillment seeing bad actors taken off the streets,” he said.
Dedication for Duncan isn’t a new concept. Often, he said, he is up early – before dawn – to patrol areas of the county where burglaries have been reported. The patrols have worked, he said.
“I think we’ve made an impact,” he said.
Duncan said one important message he wants to send to the public is his office is focused on helping the community.
“They should know the Oregon State Police is committed to the citizens of Malheur County,” he said.
Duncan said he plans to do consulting and analysis of post-crash cases involving drugs and alcohol after he retires.
He said he always wanted to be able to measure his own success with the Oregon State Police by asking if, given the chance, he’d do it all over again.
“And I am right there,” he said.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
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