Late sheriff leaves lasting legacy
William Randolph "Bill" Probstfield's family joked that he was like a cat, because sometimes it seemed as if he had nine lives.
Probstfield died Jan. 5, at 77, leaving his family mourning and a community of local law enforcement officials reflecting on his contributions to the profession.
Probstfield was best known for starting the county's first K-9 unit, SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team, and DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, as well as helping lead the efforts to create an Enhanced Sheriff's Patrol District, which funded deputies' patrol outside city limits.
But Probstfield was also a competitive dancer, dirt-bike enthusiast, family man and inspirational speaker.
A decade after being diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) in 1995 — two years after he retired — Probstfield received a double-lung transplant. With only about 50 percent of patients surviving more than five years after the procedure, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, Probstfield's 13 years of health thanks to the pair of second-hand lungs was more than anyone expected.
"Every day that he got up and could breathe, his goal was to get up and help others and live life," said his daughter, Cara McGowan. "He was the poster child of lung transplants."
Probstfield started his career in law enforcement in 1968, when smoking cigarettes was commonplace.
"He had been a smoker, along with the whole sheriff's department," McGowan said. "They smoked in patrol cars, they smoked in the office, they smoked walking down the hallway."
The habit likely led to his later health problems.
Probstfield used his new lungs to dance through retirement with his wife, Janet, competing in the two-step. He was devastated when she died in 2012 from breast cancer.
"It was heartbreaking," McGowan said. "He said he got the new lungs so he could be a good husband."
When Probstfield retired to his childhood home in The Dalles, he volunteered at the Mid-Columbia Medical Center, where he helped patients with COPD and emphysema come to terms with their diagnoses, accept their new normal and consider treatment options. He was both an instructor and guest speaker.
Probstfield even wrote a book in 2003, "Smell the Rose, Blow Out the Candle," which chronicled his personal struggle with COPD.
"I'm proud of him," said McGowan.
The lung transplant was one of several near-death experiences Probstfield recovered from.
As a young officer in 1969, Probstfield was a passenger in a patrol car headed to a call when he and his partner hit a patch of ice. He broke three vertebrae in his back and was paralyzed from the chest down.
Doctors told his family they didn't think Probstfield would walk again.
But six months later, he did.
Later in life, Probstfield crashed a motorcycle, broke his ribs and punctured his lungs. But he recovered from that, too.
He continued on with his career, eventually taking the helm of the Washington County Sheriff's Office in 1983 after Warren "Bud" Barnes decided to retire early and leave the position vacant. Probstfield was elected two consecutive four-year terms after that.
During his decade-long tenure as sheriff, Probstfield added the county's first K-9 unit, SWAT team, DARE program and marine patrol for Henry Hagg Lake.
In 1985, Probstfield appointed an advisory committee which led to the creation of the Enhanced Sheriff's Patrol District, which voters approved in 1987. Taxes generated by the district, which covers unincorporated areas within the urban growth boundary — including Aloha, Metzger and Bull Mountain — enable the Sheriff's Office to provide deputies outside cities. The district serves about 200,000 residents.
Voters have continuously renewed the district levy, which now runs through 2023.
The current leadership at the Washington County Sheriff's Office is also a direct result of Probstfield's work — he hired now-Sheriff Pat Garrett at the start of Garrett's career in law enforcement.
"He helped develop recommendations for handling a rapidly growing county," Garrett said of his predecessor and former boss. "While he was sheriff, the county changed from a rural model with sparse staffing to robust policing in an urban area."
Garrett remembers Probstfield's enthusiasm most of all.
"These were cutting-edge models at the time, which really demonstrate his forward thinking," Deputy Jeff Talbot, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said of Probstfield's programs.
Probstfield's DARE program, for one, served as the foundation for the department's community outreach efforts.
"Community trust is the cornerstone to effective community policing," Talbot said. "If you don't trust the police to keep you safe, all this stuff we do is not going to work."
While DARE has since been discontinued, sheriff's deputies have continued to build on that foundation, emphasizing police presence in local schools. Talbot said positive interactions between police and youth early on create a life-long impression of officers as helpful, not negative and scary.
When people view officers as approachable, Talbot said, they're more likely to report their own problems along with suspicious activity, and help keep communities safe.
Probstfield's programs were "models for how agencies should engage," Talbot said. "This is the model of community engagement we now have a whole office dedicated to."
By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
Visit us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter
Follow Stephanie Haugen at @ReporterHaugen
Subscribe to our E-News and get the week's top stories in your inbox
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It can cost as little as 3 cents a day.)