Deschutes County is contracting armed security guards to patrol rural homeless encampments north of Bend.
The contract — worth a maximum of $25,000 — would require Compass Security and Investigations to visit the encampments in Juniper Ridge twice a day, checking on county-provided toilets and hand-washing stations. Guards carrying firearms would also assess potential fire risks, according to Deputy County Administrator Erik Kropp.
It would not be a long-term contract. With an estimated cost of $300 a day, the agreement would only last about three months. Kropp said the exact daily rate is still being finalized.
Juniper Ridge is one of the largest areas with encampments in the county, spanning 1,500 acres of public land between Bend and Redmond. Many people live in RVs and tents connected by a loose network of dirt roads. County officials point to newly-placed infrastructure for basic services, fire risk, and crime reports from the area as evidence a private security force is needed.
But multiple service providers oppose guards having guns in homeless camps.
“Hiring private security carrying firearms into the Juniper Ridge area is likely to escalate any conflict and will carry the risk of tragic consequences for some of our most vulnerable community members,” said Eric Garrity of the Bend Equity Project, a local service provider.
Kropp called these concerns “legitimate,” but that he still felt it necessary for security guards to be armed, given the camp’s history, and the number of 911 calls to the area. Last month a man died at Juniper Ridge after being attacked by three unrestrained pet dogs.
Kropp said the security contract stemmed from the county’s original plan to remove the nearly 200 people living in Juniper Ridge. That plan has been postponed indefinitely, but the recruitment of armed security guards will remain.
“We were going to ask people to leave the property and that of course has changed,” Kropp said. “We still saw the need of having some type of presence out there.”
Deschutes County had previously announced a $300,000 plan to clean up Juniper Ridge and then remove people from the area.
Before starting their patrols, the Compass security guards will receive de-escalation training from Deschutes County Behavioral Health, Kropp said.
Compass Security’s general manager, Tom McCutcheon, said the company patrols many businesses and private properties around Central Oregon, though it has never patrolled a sprawling collection of encampments the size of Juniper Ridge.
“We have a good relationship with the homeless community,” McCutcheon said. “That’s a big part of what we do.”
He said none of his employees have fired a weapon in the field since the company started in 2018.
The Deschutes County Board of County Commissioners does not have to approve the contract. Kropp said he expects it to go into effect within the next week.
Commissioner Phil Chang said he supports the presence of armed security at Juniper Ridge, given recent incidents in the area.
“There is some potential for dangerous situations out in Juniper Ridge,” Chang said.
All this comes as governments in Central Oregon have cracked down on people living outside, while their collaborative efforts to build managed camps or other safe parking sites broke down in March. The City of Bend recently removed dozens of camps occupied by people living in and around Hunnell Road, many of whom said they would move to Juniper Ridge or on nearby federal land.
The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office has become increasingly vocal about homelessness in the community. It recently hired Kevin Dahlgren, a Portland-based consultant, paying him at least $18,000 to produce a report on homelessness in Deschutes County, as first reported by The Bulletin.
Longtime local service providers have criticized Dahlgren’s report for containing inaccurate and misleading information.
Deschutes Sheriff Shane Nelson previously proposed his own anti-camping ordinance and is negotiating with the U.S. Forest Service in an attempt to enforce camping codes on federal land. The sheriff’s office has also appointed a deputy — who normally serves as a school resource officer — to patrol Juniper Ridge and camps along China Hat Road for potential fire hazards.
In Central Oregon, there’s precedent for local governments hiring private security to patrol public property. The Bend Parks and Recreation District has long used unarmed guards to enforce rules at its parks, where overnight camping is not allowed.
OPB recently reviewed incident reports produced by park security over a two-year span and found many interactions with people experiencing homelessness. Many reports involved people setting up tents or using public bathrooms for too long.
In June, the parks district approved a new 2-year contract with Trident Professional Security worth $430,000.
Private businesses in Portland have hired security companies to investigate homeless camps and write reports intended to influence city leaders. A 2021 investigation by OPB found these agreements raised questions about accountability, and led to the extensive surveillance of people who were not accused of crimes.