No, This is Not Your Grandpa's Police Department | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

No, This is Not Your Grandpa's Police Department

Christian Heeb

No, this is not your grandpa's Police Department

In recent months, the Bend Police Department has been rocked by a mid-level scandal: In January, The Bulletin reported that the Public Information Officer had been having sex with three female city employees over the past several years—sometimes in a squad car and reportedly in the police department's bathrooms and in vehicles on public streets, all while on duty. A week after that news broke, Police Chief Jeff Sale, who had commanded the force since 2011, was politely and unceremoniously let go.

If that weren't distracting and disturbing enough, the department is chronically hamstrung by budget shortages, and Sale's brusk leadership style led to a crisis in confidence—by the time of his firing, department morale was at paltry levels that would shame even Congress' abysmal approval ratings.

But that is merely a snapshot, and only tells the most salacious chapter of the story, and one that the City of Bend and its police department are steadily working to put into their rear view mirrors. To do so, the Bend Police Department is adopting new data-crunching methods to make local policing more efficient while training officers to deal with mental health issues that should calm some of the most chronic offenders. Plus, new leadership theories are being tossed around—ones also less about old-school drill sergeant, my-way-or-the-highway, and more about collaboration and problem solving.

It was just after 5:30 p.m. on a drizzly and cold Valentine's Day evening when officer Lisa Nelson pulls out of the Bend Police Department's lower parking lot to start her 10- and-one-half-hour shift. No sooner had the 48-year-old officer and nearly 19-year police force veteran turned west onto Greenwood Avenue than she received her first call of the night. A driver operating with a suspended license had just been pulled over in front of Pilot Butte Drive-In. Nelson is the second officer on the scene.

The offender is a young woman in her early 20s. Friendly and cooperative, the college-aged co-ed melts into sobs when asked if she had been drinking. She had been in an argument with her boyfriend, she explains, and after too many cocktails stormed out in a huff. She refuses a field sobriety test and instead calls her beau from the backseat of Nelson's squad car.

"Hey babe, I love you," she says between tears. "He knows I've been drinking," she continued, referring to the other, male officer on the scene. "He's stupid...I mean he's not stupid." More sobs. "Oh babe, I'm sorry."

After she was cuffed and read her rights, the other officer whisks the young woman off to jail.

It seemed a little early in the evening to be so intoxicated, but Nelson assures me that substance abusers rarely wait until happy hour. Nelson explains how she had recently responded to an early morning call in which an SUV-driving, pill-popping mother had hit three cars en route to drop her kids off at school.

"When she got there she was driving on her rims," Nelson says, herself a mother of four.

Nelson's Ford Interceptor squad car is new though she doesn't like it as much as the older, bigger Crown Victorians (the traditional cop car, but which Ford discontinued in 2011). The car's interior is outfitted with plenty of knobs, buttons and speakers, all of which are illuminated by the glow of Nelson's mounted tablet computer, on which she can quickly access information about offenders, interface with city and county records and pull up images of suspects. One photo, that of a blonde female drug dealer who Nelson is tracking, remains on the left side of the screen for most of the early evening.

"It's very useful," Nelson says of the tablet, before making a joke about not needing to write notes on her hands anymore.

At 7:15 p.m., Nelson receives another dispatch—a male reporting domestic abuse. Nelson is nearby and silently races north on Third Street; no lights or siren, but traveling close to 50 mph.

She explains that we are responding to a mental health call. The night before, the woman in question had purposefully cut herself with broken glass. Now, feeling threatened, the woman's husband has left the house, sealing himself and the couple's kids inside his car out front, awaiting the cops.

Nelson parks a few houses away, quickly exits the squad car and trots out of sight toward the couple's house. After nearly 20 minutes, Nelson returns with a middle-aged woman in sweatpants who wears a blank stare across her creaseless face. She will be taken to St. Charles for a mental health evaluation. There, she will hopefully receive the treatment she needs.

Such calls are increasingly common, Nelson says. So common, in fact, that many of the officers recognize perpetrators by their first names.

"We're really community service oriented," Nelson says, a nod to the department's long-running commitment to high response. And, more recently, the addition of positions like a mental health coordinator and a crimes analyst are better calibrating the police force to the community's needs.

Tucked on the second floor of the Bend Police Department at the foot of Pilot Butte, in a windowless office, sits Nancy Watson, a young and relatively recent addition to the department. Two knit scarfs are pinned by her door—one for the Galaxy, Los Angeles' professional soccer team, and a second for Portland's Timbers. She doesn't walk any beat, but Watson is integral to solving crime in Bend.

"I love my job," she chirps. "It's awesome."

Watson is from southern California. She interned at the Riverside Sheriff's Department, and then worked with the police department at UCLA as a criminologist. She is young, and has long straight black hair and an easy smile. She sits facing two large computer screens. Taped to her file cabinets are maps of Bend showing clusters of dots. She pulls one down, points to a neighborhood on Bend's near west side, adjacent to the river, and explains that this is a hot spot for recent car thefts, and the times each was reported—and, moreover, that such information helps officers better predict when the thieves will hit next.

She says simply, "I calculate change and stats."

Criminology is nothing new, gaining traction in the United States in the 1920s as sociologists at the University of Chicago cross-referenced information between geographic and criminally behavioral patterns. But while the concept may be a century old, the tools—and the ability to translate raw data of reported crimes—has vastly evolved over the past decade, as has the relevance of crime mapping, as evidenced by the Bend Police Department hiring a full-time crimes analyst.

"I do know more departments are hiring analysts," she explains. "Often, they can't hire more officers, so they hire analysts to use what they have. The idea is to help the officers work more efficiently."

If Watson is the frontal lobe for the police department, processing raw data and helping officers replace instinct with information, then Eileen Flory, one of the department's newest hires and who sits a floor below, is helping bring more heart to policing efforts in the region. Flory, the mental health coordinator, officially started in December, but for two years prior already had been working in her current capacity, setting up training sessions for regional law enforcement.

In the past two years, she has trained dozens of law enforcement agents, from sheriffs to security at Central Oregon Community College, in a process known as the "Memphis Model." When we meet, she briefly steps out from a 40-hour training session, including four more Bend officers.

The so-called Memphis Model, which is more bureaucratically known as Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), started in the late 1980s after public outcry over the police shooting of a mentally ill man in Tennessee who was cutting himself with a knife. After the past several years, an increasing number of police departments have adopted such trainings for their officers, to better manage 9-1-1 calls involving perpetrators with mental health issues—calls that are some of the most dangerous and inefficient, the ones most likely to end up in tense standoffs, and the persons most likely to re-offend and to become chronic issues for police departments. Eight years ago in Portland, two officers responded to a public disturbance call, where they found a bearded man, James Chasse, acting erratically. After tasering him multiple times and forcefully restraining him, Chasse was handcuffed and tossed into the back of a squad car, where he died during the crosstown drive. In response to a resounding public outcry, then Mayor Tom Potter, the city's former police chief, instituted CIT training for officers, the first such mandate for Oregon cities.

Knowing how to best navigate a perpetrator's specific issues, explains Flory, and how to guide that person not into prison but toward hospitals or proper medicines, is safer for officers entering potential volatile confrontations, and it holds hope for longer-term solutions for the perpetrators, and reduces crime rates in the process. Currently, an estimated one-third of the jail population in Deschutes County has serious mental illness. Moreover, offenders with mental health problems suffer recidivism rates greater than 70 percent, meaning two out of three will re-offend.

Only six weeks in her current position, Flory is confident and well-spoken about how law enforcement officers can best respond to what she calls "client" psychological issues. She has 15 years experience as a parole officer, often managing mental health issues with her clients.

She simplifies the training she provides to current, active officers. "Sad, Mad, Bad," she says, ticking off a quick mental checklist she encourages officers to assess when arriving at a call.

"Look and determine if (the perpetrators) are sad or depressed," explains Flory. "Next, 'mad'—are they off their medications? Not acting in their right mind?," she says. "Finally," she concludes, "are they someone who is determined to commit a crime?"

Flory goes on to tell the story about a repeat offender who was on the police's watch list. When he committed a minor crime—throwing a beer can into the Deschutes River—at first, he was given a warning that the offense may actually be prosecuted with the potential for jail time. Flory explains that the man was already anxious and mentally unstable; the pending court case disturbed him so much so that he went into a rage at his apartment.

But what happened next is what CIT training aims to do: The officer responding to the call was properly trained. He calmed the man down, put him into the squad car and took him to the hospital instead of jail, and helped the man pick up the correct medications.

Flory says that the man's girlfriend followed up with the police department to report how grateful she was. "She was amazed," Flory recalls. "It was the first interaction (her boyfriend) had with a police officer that was positive."

When the recent round of CIT training completed last Friday, a total of 22 Bend police officers—nearly one-quarter of the on-duty force—were trained and ready to respond better to calls dealing with mental health issues.

After an employee survey in November, the results for the police department were damning.

"Morale was the lowest of any department in the city," summarizes City Manager Eric King. Using the Baldrige Survey, employees within city departments considered their opinions about the current leadership, and especially their own connection and buy-in.

"When you averaged all those up," offers King, "I think it was 39 percent (at the police department), which is pretty low." In comparison, the fire department leadership was held at 70 percent in terms of positive view.

In January, a long-time department member and captain, Jim Porter, stepped in as the interim police chief.

"In the past, a leader could be more aloof," says King. "Not today."

He adds, "Bend is a small town and traditionally a chief would run the department with a type of command-and-control type of leadership—whatever I say, you do."

"But it's just not that way anymore. What I see all over the organization is that we've got bright people that have just entered the work force and they have really good ideas that we need to hear—there needs to be a system in place where they feel empowered to get those ideas on the table."

Expanding that attitude outside the police department, King adds, "It's not about an ego or that I know best; it's just that I am here as a partner to help make this community a safe place."

And, it is that attitude that interim Police Chief Porter is hoping to saturate throughout the department. Sitting alongside King at a conference table in City Hall, Porter explains new theories about leadership and teamwork. Where the previous chief had been acutely criticized for his aloof style, Porter is immediately approachable.

"You have to motivate the folks that work in the bureau from the inside out," he says. Porter sits ramrod straight in his pressed uniform, but he also carries a grandfather's soft pleasantness. "You can't force it down their throats," he adds.

A Prineville native, Porter has been in police enforcement for three decades, starting with a stint in the Air Force and clocking 16 years on Central Oregon's SWAT team.

Yet, in spite of his hometown roots, Porter believes in recruiting both locally and nationwide. Like a college basketball coach scouting across the nation for the best talent, Porter is proud of the department's recruitment efforts—recently pulling in a hotshot from the Oregon coast and a detective from Las Vegas. He adds, sounding like a clever CEO, that folding in such talent, with a few years of experience already, also saves the department in training costs.

Returning to the theme of leadership, Porter relays how his past is informing his current responsibilities.

"The Air Force taught a really good brand of leadership," he says, "but it was military leadership, not civilian leadership." Out of the Air Force in the late '70s, Porter was hired by the Crook County Sheriff's Office, a time he fondly remembers. "Customer service is their number one priority," he smiles.

He continues, "Leadership through fear doesn't work."

Porter goes on to detail one of his historical heroes, General Dwight Eisenhower, who, Porter explains, had to balance different personality types and egos to effectively wage battles in the Pacific.

"Wars are won and lost on the morale of your army," he concludes.

And rebuilding that morale seems to be Porter's number one priority.

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