Sixteen months ago, the Benton County Board of Commissioners appointed Jef Van Arsdall on a 3-0 vote to take over as sheriff and finish the unexpired term of Scott Jackson. Two months after the vote and six weeks after Jackson officially stepped down, the former Baker County undersheriff on March 15 was sworn in.
Van Arsdall obviously enjoys the challenges and looks forward to his future as the county sheriff. Within a week of when candidates for the May 17 primary election could begin filing this past September, Van Arsdall had already submitted his paperwork.
Van Arsdall got his start in law enforcement in the 1990s as a reserve deputy with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. He then worked for the Corvallis Police Department from 1997 to 2015 and moved up through the ranks from patrol officer to sergeant to lieutenant. In 2017, he went to work for the Baker County Sheriff’s Office as a lieutenant and by the following year was serving in the role of undersheriff.
As it turned out, Van Arsdall’s name won’t appear on the May 17 primary election ballot after all. Since he was the only candidate, he advanced directly to the Nov. 8 general election.
On the job for just over a year, Van Arsdall agreed to sit down for an interview with the Philomath News on March 30 in his office located in the law-enforcement building in Corvallis. He was asked questions about his profession, himself and the bond measure that will go to voters in May 2023 to help finance a new law enforcement center, which includes a new jail.
Van Arsdall’s answers were edited for clarity and length.
Law enforcement agencies across the country are experiencing personnel shortages. What’s the situation here in Benton County when it comes to your staff?
Van Arsdall: When it comes to my staff, I’m going to be essentially down eight. Some folks are just getting out of the profession entirely. … I’ve got a deputy — amazing work, just earned a sheriff’s award in the office — who does great work and he’s going to Montana where possession of drugs is still a crime. … I can’t fault him for wanting to go do proactive police work, which is what we grew up in. The flip side of that coin is we have good, young deputies in this office. … I’ve got a deputy that’s leaving, he’s going to go be a contractor. I’ve got a deputy that’s retiring and he’s going to work on the east side of the state in law enforcement.
Lots of people leave law enforcement for a lot of reasons but it sure seems like right now, it’s hard to fill those positions when they become vacant. That’s our big struggle — filling the vacant positions.
You’re running unopposed for sheriff in the upcoming election. Are you surprised that you’re not seeing anyone else with a desire for the job?
Van Arsdall: I won’t say I’m surprised but I’m pleased. It tells me that I’m doing a good job, at least that’s how I interpret that. If somebody thought I wasn’t doing the job well, I would think that they would have organized somebody to run against me.
Since I’ve started here, I’ve talked about the fact that I have an open door. If there’s a question, comment or concern, reach out, give me a call. I feel like I’m doing the job well. And if I wasn’t, I feel like the police chief in Philomath, Ken (Rueben) or Nick (Hurley, Corvallis chief) or any of the chief in our communities, they tell me if I need to improve on stuff because we’ve all known each other our entire careers.
In the rural areas, including Philomath and Kings Valley, what type of crimes are you seeing the most and are those any different from the more populated areas of the county?
Van Arsdall: Rural crimes — it’s property crimes, it’s the trespass, criminal mischief. We see DUIIs out in the county whereas in the city, just because you have the campus, you have students, you have just a larger population. … For the county, our call load is a little bit different simply because of the service area that we have — it’s a little more proactive. But we back up Philomath on stuff and we have Monroe and Adair Village service contracts, so we spend a lot of time in those communities just providing services, making contact and being visible.
I like the opportunity of being visible in the communities. Corvallis responds to a lot of calls for service; I think with the sheriff’s office and with deputies, you get the opportunity to know who we are, know who the deputies are — it’s just a little bit different policing.
Do you believe in the use of body cameras for your deputies?
Van Arsdall: We use body cameras here. When I started with Corvallis police, I didn’t have body cameras but I had a car camera. And I loved my car camera … it was VHS, so you’d have your VCR tape and you’d have tons of tapes and have to organize them and put them into evidence. You know, we’re clearly a heck of a lot more advanced now.
I like the idea of a body camera because it gives you a pretty good idea of what the deputy is dealing with. You get to see it from a deputy’s perspective. And I think it validates the actions of law enforcement. For the longest time, a lot of folks weren’t sure what they felt about body cameras. It’s just like a taser — now they strap their camera on every day; that’s just part of the uniform … I’m a fan of the body camera.
How has technology changed your job since you first wore a badge in 1997?
Van Arsdall: I started as a reserve with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and at the time, they had MDTs (mobile data terminals). If you remember like on the show “Cops,” they were that little orange screen down here and there’s all kinds of buttons — what a distraction. And then I come to Corvallis and we used to have neighborhood books for each district.
So you’d have your direct patrol list in there and you’d have maps … if there was a certain issue, you had your tactical action plan in there. And you’d have to check it off during the night where you went in a little booklet and you’d hand the booklet to the oncoming cop for the next shift. We didn’t have MDTs, we didn’t have tasers, we didn’t have rifles. You just went out and worked. There were a lot of handwritten reports.
… Now, almost everything is paperless, it’s in the cars. When you arrest somebody, you fill out the stuff in the car, so when you get to the jail, the jail already has it uploaded in their computer so they can start the booking process. It’s amazing how everything’s just at the stroke of a key. I can get on my computer right now and I can tell you what every deputy, every cop in Corvallis, every cop at OSU, Albany, Linn County — there’s mapping, it’s amazing.
Benton County’s jail was built in 1976 and is the smallest per capita of any county in Oregon. What’s your best argument for why we need a new jail?
Van Arsdall: This county deserves better. And I wish in 1976 when this temporary jail was built that at that point, right then and there, they just started thinking to the future and how are we going to make this happen? Here we are 40, almost 50 years later, and we’re still dealing with the same jail from 1976. I’m not saying we need a 400-bed jail, but we need a bigger jail. And we need a jail that can handle the wide range of folks that are visiting, whether you’re there for post-prison, you’re a felon, you’re in on a domestic violence charge, you’re brought in and you suffer from mental health issues. Our facility is not designed, built or equipped to handle that type of stuff.
So we have a couple of holding cells and a couple of waiting cells. And when we get in a mental health client, if we can’t put them back in the general population, they absorb that holding cell, waiting cell. And once they do that, that cell is down and we can’t accept people into the facility.
If you are an A or B felony or a mandatory arrest, we have to bring you into the facility and we have to find room and so it becomes a challenge when you have a 40-bed facility and your four holding cells are held up, and maybe in the back, you’ve got double-bunk cells that now you’ve had to put additional mental health clients in because they can’t go in the general population…. I think today, we had 23 people in and we’re at capacity. I don’t have a place to put folks.
On top of that, you start spending money. OK, we’re going to rent 10 beds in Polk County and it’s very gracious of the sheriff there to rent those beds but it’s not free; he’s getting money for that. We have 22 beds we pay for at NORCOR (Northern Oregon Regional Correctional) in The Dalles. So our sentenced folks go to NORCOR … We can’t provide the same services.
For some of our habitual offenders, there’s no consequence. If they fail to appear, what are you going to do? “You can’t put me in jail, there’s no room.” So there needs to be some accountability and consequences as well as the treatment portion. The new facility at 120 beds, it would have two 40-bed pods, it would have a mental health wing where folks that require a little bit more intensive care treatment or attention can receive it from qualified, trained professionals. And that would have a larger space for females.
At 120 beds, when you look at the fact that almost 100,000 people, if you go over to Lincoln County, they have a 160-bed facility. If you go to Lane County, they’re using 400 beds right now but they have a facility that goes over 500. Linn County has a 230-plus bed facility. So our neighbors have really large facilities and I’m not saying that’s the answer, but I am saying that if we got a 120-bed facility, now we’re talking about being able to have that accountability, those consequences and with an updated facility that would provide treatment. … And we don’t have to watch that money and that infrastructure go out of our county, it stays local. That’s my sell.
What happens if the bond measure for a new justice improvement center doesn’t pass?
Van Arsdall: Like any other day, we just adapt and we go to work, we figure out how to make this facility work. And we figure out what the next step is. Right now, I see a great deal of support for this office for law enforcement in this community. I think that folks recognize the need.
Nick Kurth (project manager) makes mention of the firm that did a bunch of the work of building up to this and pointed out that we’re like the smallest facility they’ve ever seen in the country with a 40-bed facility that operates at 23 to 27. I think because of the pandemic as well but in my year-plus of being here, I think the high day was like 33, 34, in the facility. And then 10 at Polk since July 1 when we got that contract and then depending on what’s going on with the courts, the number at NORCOR.
So, yeah, if it doesn’t pass, we just come to work. You’ve still got to provide the service.
Do you see logistical or convenience issues with a new jail and associated services not being located in the center of Corvallis?
Van Arsdall: If the bond passes, then we would have a suite of law enforcement and public safety facilities out at the new site. You would have a courthouse, a DA’s (district attorney) office, a jail and an emergency management center and now that allows us to build it, how we want to build it.
I, of course, love having the jail right next to the court and the DA. I think the district attorney’s office and the court would tell you they like that as well. I think the public defenders would say, ‘boy, it’s pretty handy to be able to do A and B and have everything together.’ So I just think that’s another huge selling point … to be able to have those resources right next to each other.
After your time with the Corvallis Police Department and then going out to Baker, was it a goal of yours to return to this region of the state?
Van Arsdall: To be honest, I loved working for Sheriff Travis Ash, he was an amazing sheriff and in four years, I learned so much from him. Really, if you’d asked me that four years ago, you know, I’m going to say I’m going to be Travis’s undersheriff for the rest of my life, right? This opportunity came about and I talked with some folks over here and they felt like the time was right. It was a good opportunity for me to come back where it all began and have an impact on the community where my kids were born.
I thought, “man, what a great opportunity to go home” so we knew it was a no brainer once the Board of Commissioners offered me the appointment. I accepted with open arms and got out here right away. Sheriff Ash was great; he gave me a couple of weeks before I was sworn in off so I could come out here, get acquainted, get into the office, look at some stuff. Once I got sworn in, it was just off and running. So, I couldn’t be any happier.
What’s something you’re willing to share about yourself that not a lot of people know?
Van Arsdall: My wife and I, when I was on the east side of the state when the family asked me to go help with the ranch, we actually ran a kids camp for young people to come. We live pretty Spartan out there, it was pretty cool, amazing. My wife is an incredibly talented and gifted human being and I just was around to lift the heavy things and do what she needed and we had a blast.
So I guess a lot of people wouldn’t know that I used to run a horse kids camp in the middle of nowhere and it was a ton of fun.