The North Coast is far away from Ferguson, Missouri, where protests shook the St. Louis suburb last year following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer.
The climate — socially, culturally, environmentally — is different here. So is the history, the landscape and the economics.
But in light of the Ferguson shooting and other similar incidents that have shaken the nation, the Lower Columbia Diversity Project saw a need to address how police work intersects with the community.
“Cops and Community: A Local Perspective,” a discussion Thursday night at the Judge Guy Boyington Building in Astoria, featured a panel of local police chiefs: Cannon Beach’s Jason Schermerhorn, Seaside’s Dave Ham, Warrenton’s Matt Workman and Astoria’s Brad Johnston.
Astoria City Councilor Drew Herzig moderated the discussion, asking the chiefs to talk about “community policing” and what programs or policies they’ve implemented to improve interactions with the community. He asked them to describe the challenges they face in their distinct communities.
Though Clatsop County police departments have not recently been involved in any racially-charged cases like the high-profile ones seen elsewhere in the nation, this summer, a Clatskanie police officer filed a complaint against Clatskanie police chief Marvin Hoover after Hoover allegedly made racist statements while being debriefed on the arrest of woman who had said she was being discriminated against. According to the officer, Hoover — who has since retired — compared black people to monkeys, sang “Dixie” and made monkey noises.
This incident and other more distant events reverberated in the questions members of the audience asked Thursday night.
Astoria rsidents Andrew Marshall and Gladys Klingerman, the only two people of color present at the talk, asked about the level of diversity at the various police departments. The chiefs admitted that none of their departments are particularly diverse. In all the departments combined, there are only a handful of women, Hispanic or Latino officers employed and no black officers.
Marshall, who has lived in the area since the late 1970s, pointed out that the county’s demographics are changing rapidly. He and Klingerman asked about ongoing diversity training at the departments.
The chiefs said diversity in their departments remains a challenge. In small, rural departments where there are few chances for promotion, it can be hard to attract a wide range of good candidates, they said.
As the definition of what makes for good police work evolves, however, they have changed how they interview potential officer candidates, Ham said. His department, as well as the other departments, now try to zero in on a candidate’s core, asking how a candidate makes ethical decisions and examples of when the candidate has made such decisions.
The answers, Ham said, are deeply revealing.
In some cases, based on these answers, they haven’t hired someone who, otherwise, earned high scores on the other tests the departments use to single out strong candidates, tests the departments used to rely on heavily.
And though diversity training is important, Johnston and Workman pointed out that, as social concerns go, the question of how to best deal with mental health issues tops the list here, not racism. There are next to no beds available for people who are experiencing a mental health crisis and need a safe place to go, the chiefs said. There are few local resources that officers can easily tap when they have questions or concerns while out policing or when emergency situations arise.
Community policing is not a new concept on the coast, said Schermerhorn. It is something all the departments currently do, and have done for some time, to varying extents. This work goes beyond simply keeping the peace. It can look like funding a school resource officer who spends his or her time working with students; it can look like holding community picnics, giving neighborhood residents a chance to voice concerns in an informal setting. It often looks like getting out into the neighborhoods, getting to know people, being a trusted member of the community.
Many times it is about forging partnerships with other groups or agencies that are better equipped to deal with the underlying issues like mental illness, substance abuse and family strife, the chiefs said. While local police might be the ones who respond first to a domestic violence call, strong partnerships with The Harbor, an organization that helps victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, mean advocates trained to get victims the legal help and personal counseling they need are often present, too.
“In small cities like these, you really have to rely on one another and we currently do every day of the week,” Schermerhorn said.
Clatsop County law enforcement is in a good place in many ways, the chiefs said.
“We do a have these — decades-long in some places — connections with our community,” Johnston said.
But challenges remain. All the police departments are small and many struggle for adequate funding. In recent years, most have had to drop the school resource officer position, losing out on those face-to-face opportunities with kids in the schools.
Also, officers often show up in the middle of what has likely been a long-term problem. By forging strong relationships with community partners, police can be instrumental in solving some of these long-term problems, but ultimately, the chiefs said, this is the community’s work.
These days, Johnston said, police have to be everything to all people. But often, he added, “We’re just Band-Aids.”