François Vigneault

IT BEGAN with an oath.

In March 2012, a small band of Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) agents arrayed themselves on a stage in Salem and promised to protect and serve the people of Oregon.

Just weeks earlier, Oregon lawmakers had granted the inspectors "peace officer" status—essentially making them sworn police officers where the state's liquor laws are concerned.

The 11 agents were the first in OLCC history to graduate from a modified four-week police academy. Their labor union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2505, crowed, calling them "trailblazers."

Three years later, AFSCME's not so excited.

On April 10, Oregon's 41 liquor control inspectors filed a petition with the state to disband from the union and start one of their own. The reasons are varied, and many inspectors are reluctant to discuss the situation.

But one unavoidable issue is this: OLCC agents really want guns.

"Here we are, sworn law enforcement, but we're not armed yet," says Jeff Bell, an OLCC inspector who works Portland's southern outskirts. "The commission for so long has denied the fact that we go into hostile situations."

Since formalizing their peace officer status in 2012, members of the OLCC's inspection squad have called repeatedly for permission to pack heat, arguing that enforcing Oregon alcohol laws comes with serious perils. They've pushed the issue with AFSCME representatives and, just last December, gave a PowerPoint presentation to OLCC management making a case that guns should be added to the handcuffs, pepper spray, and batons they already tote.

So far, they've missed the mark.

"Yes, there was a presentation, but at this point we see no need to provide firearms to any OLCC peace officers," says OLCC spokesman Tom Towslee.

The union effort is a sign that liquor agents aren't done fighting. Even though their ability to carry guns is more of a management decision than a contract negotiation, inspectors like Bell say law enforcement-oriented representation will help the cause.

"It's hard to represent individuals if you haven't walked in their footsteps," Bell says.

The union OLCC inspectors have in mind is called the Oregon Liquor Control Peace Officers' Association. It's not a done deal, but as envisioned, the group would be helmed by an inspector named John Mereen, who resigned from the Oregon State Police in 2005 after he was convicted of breaking into his ex-wife's home.

Mereen practically hung up on the Mercury when we called to talk about the proposed union, and hasn't returned persistent calls and emails (other agents didn't respond to our messages, or said they couldn't comment). But he told the Oregonian, which first reported on the petition, that inspectors are "seeking to have themselves better represented and to be allowed to perform our duties as necessary and obtain the proper equipment and protection to do our jobs." 

A small, inspectors-only union could be just the ticket Mereen needs to meet those aims. Forty-one agents are easier to corral into a cohesive bargaining position than 200-plus OLCC employees with widely differing job descriptions.

And OLCC inspectors do, in fact, face vastly different situations than, say, an employee working in a liquor warehouse.

"If I end up using pepper spray and handcuffing someone, I put myself in a unique legal position," says Chad Gray, an inspector who works Josephine County in the state's southwest corner. "If it turns out I was wrong, I want to make sure I'm protected. AFSCME doesn't seem like they're really on board with that."

Both Gray and Bell say they sometimes feel unsafe at the bars they patrol. It goes deeper than the snide remarks they've come to expect. Gray's had a beer dumped on him, and Bell once dealt with a drunk who had a (legally permitted) pistol concealed in his waistband.

"He could have pulled it out and shot us all," he says. "Mace doesn't help you at that point."

Neither Gray nor Bell has ever been assaulted on the job, but both worry they'll be targeted by dangerous people—something they think will be made worse by the agency's May 1 dictum requiring inspectors to wear polo shirts emblazoned with an OLCC badge insignia while out on patrol.

"Part of our safety was our anonymity," says Gray, who expressed a concern that, for instance, bar-goers who have active arrest warrants could freak out when they see an inspector wearing a polo shirt with a badge stitched on it. "That's one of our fears."

Of course, not everyone will be thrilled at the prospect of heavily armed liquor agents. OLCC inspectors are never especially popular figures, but have drawn louder-than-normal criticism lately due to stories of overzealous enforcement.

In April, the Mercury reported the story of a Lewis and Clark College junior who feared she'd be kidnapped or raped when she spotted an unmarked car tailing her late at night ["Drunk on Power?" News, April 15]. It was just OLCC agents, there to write her a ticket.

The incident drew the ire of lawmakers like Representative Ann Lininger (D-Lake Oswego) and Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day), and was a factor, the agency says, in requiring agents to wear the conspicuous polos.

At the same time, OLCC agents are about to get increased powers. The agency plans to hire more peace officers to enforce the state's pot licensing laws when they kick in July 1. Spokesman Towslee says there's no plan to arm either group.

"We have great relations with law enforcement," he says. "Our people know that, if they feel like there's a need, they know who to call."

But it's clear liquor inspectors will keep pushing, and the fate of their petition may be a big determinant in their success. The matter is currently before the Oregon Employment Relations Board, which will decide whether liquor agents are sufficiently different from other OLCC employees to merit their own union.

AFSCME Local 2505 plans to argue they're not, says Ross Grami, the staffer who works with OLCC employees. And if it's successful and inspectors have to stay put? AFSCME's still not pushing for guns any time soon.

"It's a current issue for some," Grami says, "but it's not something the union's pursuing."