For years, Austin Wallace has gone out on animal cruelty calls driving a vehicle with flashing lights and a siren, and wearing a uniform, a bulletproof vest, and a taser on his hip.

The Oregon Humane Society special agent was trained and accredited by the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, but was a policeman without a law enforcement agency. And under Oregon law, the governor could remove the society’s police powers at any time.

Now, however, he will be formally recognized by the Oregon State Police. And the society’s law enforcement role is permanent thanks to legislation passed by Oregon lawmakers. At some point he may even be able to carry a gun.

On Tuesday, Oregon State Police Superintendent Richard Evans will commission Wallace and his partner, Ulli Neicht, essentially deputizing them.

“What the Legislature did is say we are not going to leave it up to the governor,” said David Lytle, a spokesman for the Humane Society. “This insulates them from political whims.”

After a two-year process intended to match up with the needs of the state police, the society’s two animal cops will follow similar policies and procedures. They’ll also carry modern radios that patch into the state police 911 center, allowing them to call for backup.

They could eventually be able to carry guns, though the details haven’t been finalized.

“They deal with the same criminal elements that every other police officer in this state deals with,” said Humane Society spokesman David Lytle. “So we will be looking at this from the perspective of the safety of our officers. But there’s been no long-term decision made.”

Wallace says a firearm would be a welcome tool for self-defense when walking into dangerous situations. He’s been out on calls and had people brandish rifles while asking him what he wants, and he’s faced other threatening situations as well.

“Right now I’m like a carpenter without a hammer,” Wallace said. “Really, it’s just a tool to keep us safe out there. I’m ready for it.”

Wallace, a nine-year Humane Society employee, worked as an animal control officer for the Police Department in Portsmouth, NH.

Neicht, his partner, is a former public information officer for the Milwaukie Police Department who joined the society last month. A 25-year police veteran, she said she’s drawn her weapon but never had to pull the trigger.

The animal cops have arrest powers but use them, instead issuing citations that can lead to prosecution.

They receive about 1,000 tips per year, and probably about a couple of dozen turn into criminal cases, Wallace said.

The unit is funded entirely by the nonprofit. Under the legislation that gave the society a role with the Oregon State Police, the nonprofit has to bear the costs of any lawsuits.

Neicht says the job is similar to her longtime police job, except there’s significantly more leeway to help people comply with the law.

“There’s a lot more positive interaction with people in the community,” she said.

— Nick Budnick

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