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Police Chief Robin Sells wants more Spanish speakers, women in the department

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Gresham Police Officer Walter Harper went into law enforcement because he wanted to be able to help people. At a young age, Walter Harper was aware of the problems between communities of color and law enforcement — but having his dad in uniform helped show all sides.

"I had a unique perspective growing up, I thought it was pretty cool seeing my dad in uniform," Harper said.

While he was proud of his dad, Harper wasn't interested in a law enforcement career. Instead, he graduated from college with a business degree and dove into the corporate world. But life behind a desk didn't suit him.

So he followed his dad's lead and applied to become a police officer, joining the Gresham Police Department more than two years ago as part of a growing number of people of color among the ranks of sworn officers serving the local community.

"I wanted to have a job where I could give back to people," Harper said. "Now I'm able to help people out of bad situations."

The 27 year old works the night shift in Gresham, from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and loves being able to address a wide array of situations.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Gresham Police Chief Robin Sells said the department needs more Spanish-speaking officers and women in their ranks, but currently have no room for new hires."He is a stellar young man," said Gresham Police Chief Robin Sells. "He's a great officer and is always at our community engagement events."

It's officers like Harper who have helped strengthen the racial and ethnic diversity within the ranks of the Gresham Police Department.

According to 2019 data provided by the department, five Gresham officers identify as black, four as Asian, one as Pacific Islander, three as Native American, eight as Latino/Hispanic and 110 as white. Compared to 2015, the number of black officers has increased by 2.15%; Asian by 1.4%; Native American by 1.5%; and Latino by 2.7%.

Sells said the numbers are trending in the right direction, but there is still room for improvement.

"The numbers show an improvement, but when we hire it's not based on a need of demographics," she said. "We are looking for the best-qualified people."

COURTESY PHOTO: GRESHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT - Officer Matthew Harris-Myers during the annual Shop with a Cop event. Every year Gresham turns in a report tracking bias complaints against the department. Last year there was one complaint that was dismissed after an investigation by state agencies.

"We don't take those things lightly," Sells said.

The department holds trainings on how to avoid biased-based policing. Any time an officer makes a stop, they must report on why they pulled that person over and note the person's race. That information is sent to a third-party organization that analyzes the data and raises a red flag at when troubling trends emerge.

"Some (community members) may be more comfortable talking to an officer with the same face as them — but on our end it doesn't make a difference because we are all equipped to deal with every type of person," Harper said.

He added no one should be afraid to approach a Gresham police officer.

"We love to answer any questions," he said.

Women and language

COURTESY PHOTO: GRESHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT - Officer Malaka Kerbs, left, with Gresham firefighter Chandra Holestine. The Gresham Police Department needs more people who speak multiple languages.

Language barriers can be difficult for officers who serve such a diverse community. There are 12 Spanish speakers in the department, which leads to a language barrier between police and the Spanish speakers they encounter in the community.

That lack of communication can make it intimidating for people to approach law enforcement. National fear surrounding deportations and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also make Spanish speakers more hesitant to come forward.

There is also only one officer in Gresham who comfortably speaks Russian. The Slavic community has a large presence in the Portland region, with some estimates placing it at almost 100,000 people — many of whom call East Multnomah County home.

"We need to be able to communicate with the community," Sells said. "When people hear words in their own language it becomes more credible."

Sells also said she would like to bring in more female officers. According to Sells, studies across the country show that hiring more women into law enforcement tends to produce fewer conflicts between officers and the public they serve.

Most departments aim for 10% of its officers to be women. In Gresham there are eight, including Sells, out of 131 sworn officers.

"Women officers tend to use excessive force less often and don't generate the same number of complaints," she said. "We don't cause the same problems."

No openings

COURTESY PHOTO: GRESHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT - Sergeant John Herrera walks with a young community member. The department is exploring new avenues for recruiting the best candidates to Gresham, which could lead to even more diversity.

Each year the department attends several recruitment events in Oregon during job fairs, attracting a pool of applicants from across the state. But most officers who apply make their way here via word-of-mouth referrals from other regional departments.

Though funding makes it difficult, Gresham wants to explore more out-of-state recruitment, which would bring in people from diverse backgrounds.

Sells points to a recent rise in compensation for officers serving in Atlanta. Their salary is now equal to the base pay in Gresham.

But that's the exception, not the rule. Sells said law enforcement agencies in the South generally pay less than what's offered in Gresham, which makes East Multnomah County an enticing destination for a young, eager officer.

But the problem is there are no openings for sworn officers in Gresham, obliterating any competitive advantage in recruitment.

Sells said it's a combination of a lack of funding available to create new positions and low turnover, leading to several highly qualified potential hires having to be turned away.

"There is a female officer in Corvallis who has expressed interest in transferring to us, but I can't find a spot for her," Sells said. "I wish I had more room for officers."

Once an officer joins Gresham, they rarely leave. It speaks to the camaraderie of the department and the efforts local law enforcement has made in connecting with communities across the city. But it also adds to a slower pace of diversifying ranks.

An officer like Harper adds to the problem for no openings, as he has no plans to leave this community anytime soon. He said he is glad to have made the leap from business to law enforcement, despite having to learn to chug down coffee at 9 p.m. to survive the night shift.

He was proud seeing his father in uniform, and is proud to represent the community alongside his fellow officers.

"Being a police officer is a great career, and Gresham is a great place to work," he said.


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