Policing Eugene

When Pete Kerns was named Eugene’s police chief last Friday, two memories led to two phone calls.

March 1998. City Club’s speaker that Friday was then Eugene Police Chief Leonard Cooke. The topic was community policing. It was a bit of a dog and pony show, trotting out familiar statistics about an ounce of crime prevention being worth a pound of criminal prosecutions.

Or maybe it was about the proposal to combine the police and fire departments. “Guns and hoses” was all the rage back then, as a cost-cutting move. Frankly, I don’t remember the topic, except that it was a story Cooke was telling a lot, to any group who would listen.

Then came the question-and-answer period. Cooke gave an alarmingly frank appraisal of this community. He spoke calmly about the daily dangers his police force encounters and the special challenge Eugene presents.

Although it was more than a decade ago, I can still almost quote his answer to a question long forgotten. “Eugene is not an easy place to police,” he said without affect, “because there is not broad consensus as to what constitutes acceptable behavior.”

I was shocked, and so were many others. How could he speak so directly? A week later we found out how. Two days before his City Club speech, City Manager Vicki Elmer had fired him, but agreed to keep it quiet for two weeks. A lame duck police chief can make sitting ducks of the rest of us.

Cooke immediately left Eugene for Virginia, where he became Chief of Police for Portsmouth until 2002, and then moved on to direct Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services.

I called Cooke this week. I asked him if he remembers that speech. He waited silently. I couldn’t tell if he was thinking or just being polite. Then he laughed. “Oh, I remember everything about Eugene. That was an interesting day. Let’s put it this way. That presentation had what you’d have to call good timing.”

Turns out it was an exit interview, except only he was the only one in the room who knew he was exiting.

He remembers Eugene fondly. “It’s always good when you leave a place with more friends than when you arrived, and that was definitely true in Eugene.” He was pleased to learn Kerns got the job. “It’s always good when you can hire from within, because cops so often can end up in the middle of things.”

Getting into the middle of things is what cops are paid to do.

Next I called a friend who has been a Eugene police officer for several years. He had used me as a job reference when he applied. We swapped stories. He went first.

“Just the other day, a store owner called us because his staff had been menaced when they confronted a shoplifter. The guy got away, but I spotted him running down a certain street and I thought, ‘Oh, I know where he’s going.’ Others have used this same spot as a haven, so my partner went around the back and I pounded on the door. I had to think immediately about the level of force I would use, managing risks for neighbors, keeping my head down and voice up. We got him, but every possible scenario first played out in my head.”

Just another day at the office for a Eugene police officer.

Then I told him my story, admittedly less harrowing. When the recruiter called me to check his references, I thought it would be the usual perfunctory background check. Nope. Dozens of questions about my friend’s reaction to stress, any evidence of mood swings, exhibited decision-making skills, experience with team-building and creative problem-solving. On and on it went for nearly an hour. That was only the beginning of the scrutiny.

It turns out he’s very good at the job. Eugene typically invests $100,000 and almost a year of training on each recruit. Half of them don’t make it past their 18-month probationary period.

What do we get for that investment? We get permission to barely and seldom think about the job they do for us. That’s worth a lot.

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City Club of Eugene begins its fall season next Friday with a speech at noon by City Manager Jon Ruiz. Details are at www.cityclubofeugene.org. Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.