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Jim Abeles makes the unlikely transition from executive to police officer

by: VERN UYETAKE - Jim Abeles stands outside the West Linn police station.About four months ago, when Jim Abeles pulled his car out of a reserved lot and began his first solo patrol as a West Linn Police officer, the 48-year-old felt like he was 16 again.

It was the same concoction of feelings that Abeles had when he first learned to drive: excitement, with a healthy dose of apprehension.

He’d spent the past nine months of training thinking, “I can’t wait. I can’t wait. I can’t wait.” Now, as he left the police station, a very different thought crept into his mind.

“What have I gotten myself into?”

Two years earlier, Abeles had been living comfortably as CEO of the Pre-1 newspaper and magazine software company. He dictated his own schedule, wore whatever he pleased and was in charge of a close-knit group of 15 full-time employees. His days were predictable, and his wife could count on him being home for dinner at night.

Approaching 50, Abeles appeared on the surface to be settled and content with his life’s trajectory. Yet deep inside, a nearly 30-year-old memory continued to tug at him, begging for acknowledgment.

Abeles finally relented, and that was how he ended up alone in that squad car back in January — ready to start a new career after walking away from his previous one and, for one fleeting moment at least, feeling like a scared teenager again.

James Abeles was an 18-year-old freshman at Lewis & Clark College when he made his first foray into police work. It occurred mostly by happenstance. As part of a sociology class, Abeles and his fellow students had the option of taking a police ride-along in Portland. He jumped at the opportunity, and thus found himself parked in the backseat of a squad car for an eight-hour night shift.

It was, he remembers now, like living through an episode of “Cops.” There was a flash of exhilaration when the officers had their first “code three” — when the siren and flashing lights come on — and he had a front row seat as they crisscrossed through North Portland dealing with prostitutes, runaways and whatever else came their way.

Abeles was touched by the experience in a way he hadn’t expected, but it wasn’t quite enough to prompt a shift in his career path. This was the 1980s after all — a time when one of the most quoted movie lines was “Greed is good.”

“It was like the Wall Street era, the yuppy era,” Abeles said. “It was all about making money, and so I took that path — a white collar path — instead.”

His grandfather had worked in the newspaper industry, and Abeles wanted to follow that path. After graduating from Lewis & Clark, he worked on the business end at Willamette Week, then moved back home to the Chicago area to work at the Chicago Sun Times.

Eventually, he moved back to Portland and into the software world, developing Pre-1 as a mechanism for business and advertising management at newspapers and magazines. Some publications, including the Portland Tribune, used the program as an editorial database as well.

“So I pursued that career and it was great. I loved it,” Abeles said. “It was financially gratifying. I liked having my own company and I liked all that went with that.

“But I always wondered, ‘What if?’”

by: VERN UYETAKE - Abeles sits at his desk inside the police station, waiting for calls to come in over his earpiece.

In 2011, nearly three decades after his first ride-along, Abeles went for another — this time with 25-year Portland police veteran Mike Stradley. If the adrenaline of the first experience was exactly what his 18-year-old self desired, this one touched the more serious side that had emerged with middle age.

“I was just really struck with how professional they were,” Abeles said. “How much they actually cared about the people — not just the good guys but the bad guys they dealt with, like some of the kids, and trying to work with them.”

He had a friend who worked in the West Linn Police Department, and arranged a ride-along there too. It was shortly after that when he realized what he wanted to do.

“I could do this,” he thought. “I think I could do it well, and I would love it.”

He kept in touch with Stradley, who had retired from the Portland Police Department and was moving over to the West Linn Police Department. It so happened that West Linn had several job openings, and after trudging through a tedious application process — written and physical tests, a thorough background investigation, medical and psychological evaluations — Abeles was hired on March 19, 2012.

What remained, of course, was formal training both in West Linn and the police academy in Salem. After being hired, Abeles worked with a field training officer for four months before heading to Salem in the summer for the police academy’s version of bootcamp.

It was an odd feeling, being twice the age of many cadets and sharing a dorm room with a 22-year-old.

“A lot of people, particularly younger ones, thought I was crazy for trading a relatively cushy, relatively easy life to suddenly working weird hours or going to live in Salem at an academy and starting all over again,” Abeles said.

It was tough, too, going through the rigors of training both at the academy and on the streets with his training officers. After each outing, Abeles received a daily report card that graded him in 27 different categories — everything from safety skills to interpersonal relations and knowledge of the law.

“It was a huge wake up call,” Abeles said. “Suddenly having to give up all that was comfortable and easy, and (taking) somewhat of a financial cut. I wasn’t Bill Gates, but I was making decent money. So I took a pay cut and was suddenly working crazy hours and getting evaluated, not always 100 percent positive. It was very humbling.”

After four months at the academy, and nearly two more months training once again in West Linn, Abeles was finally ready to begin solo patrols at the dawn of 2013.

That initial sense of apprehension quickly wore off as he began driving, and soon an entirely different thought was bouncing through his head.

“Oh my God, this is awesome.”

Since that first patrol, Abeles has been learning more about the job each day, and no longer feels like a stone cold rookie.

“It’s kind of a cool stage where I’m on my own and I’ve figured out the basics of the job, but there’s still tons that I’m learning every day,” Abeles said. “I’m sure at some point the learning curve will start to change, but still every day you’re dispatched or called to something that you just haven’t dealt with before and have to figure it out.”

Stradley, for his part, has been an indispensible coach for Abeles throughout the process — though he is quick to point out that Abeles was a natural fit for the job.”He’s exactly what you want in police work,” Stradley said. “Somebody who’s calm and a good communicator and interested in helping people. And that really describes him. He goes out here and he looks for ways to help people.”

Officers in a smaller department like West Linn generally act as a “jack of all trades,” in Abeles’ terms, and already he has dealt with a wide variety of situations ranging from domestic disputes to dog bites and illegal driving.

“Being on my own — knock on wood — it’s all been challenging and fun,” Abeles said. “No single incident comes up as my worst or hardest or anything like that.”

When Abeles first brought up the career change to his family members, it was the ever-present chance of danger that had some of them worried. His older three children — all college age — worried about him, as did his mother. But his wife had known about this hidden interest for a long time, and his 6-year-old daughter thought it was just about the coolest profession a dad could have.

“Every time I hear her tell her class, ‘My dad is a policeman,’ it melts my heart,” Abeles said. “She’s so proud.”

In the end, it was a transition Abeles had to make, a calling he could no longer ignore.

“Life is so short,” Abeles said. “Money is not everything, and if you’re not totally thrilled going to work every day — even if you’re making decent money — in my opinion it’s not worth it.

“I love it here, and can see staying here until the time I retire.”

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