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Chief Travis Gullberg realizes his dream of serving in the Gresham Police Department

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Travis Gullberg has been named the Gresham chief of police. Nearly three decades ago, Gresham's new chief of police was turned down for a position in the department.

Travis Gullberg was fresh out of Warner Pacific College with a degree in sociology and social work and dreamed of making a positive impact on his hometown. He was drawn to policing through a nebulous mix of sources — from a family friend who worked as a police officer to his parents always being the first to volunteer within the community. For Gullberg, he felt donning the uniform would be the best way to make a difference. "I just knew at some point I would be serving," he said.

So, the 22-year-old found himself strolling through the Gresham Police Department in 1992, the same building that today stands adjacent to City Hall along Eastman Parkway. He was nervous taking his first steps into the "real world."

"I remember vividly following a sergeant as he escorted me through the building," Gullberg said. "He was telling me about what it would take to make it in this career, and the experiences and expectations I should have for myself."

The pair passed photos on the walls showcasing officers working alongside community members, and memorabilia commemorating men and women of the department. They also passed the office that Gullberg would eventually find himself settling into decades years later.

But after an intensive round of interviews and tests, in which Gullberg acquitted himself as a capable finalist, the Gresham Police Department went in a different direction.

"I wasn't ready back then, but I am now," Gullberg said. "I pinch myself — I never imagined I would be the chief of police in my hometown."

COURTESY PHOTO: MULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE - Chief Travis Gullberg makes his way to Gresham with a wealth of knowledge from a long career with the Multnomah County Sheriffs Office. Last summer, the city of Gresham announced Gullberg as the next chief of police. He takes the reins of a department going through changes and challenges after the unexpected departure of his predecessor, Chief Robin Sells, in February 2020. On top of a leadership void, the department has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, shocking spikes in shootings, questions about accountability and how law enforcement should interact with the community, underemployment and budget woes.

"I am very optimistic about the future of policing, because we have gotten a lot of good support," Gullberg said. "We are going to hold ourselves accountable and work hard to rebuild relationships with the community."

And despite all the difficulties, city leadership believes in Gullberg they have found the perfect person to lead the department into the future.

"He brings years of law enforcement experience, a passion for community engagement, and a dedication to building community trust to this position," said Deputy City Manager Corey Falls, who was integral during the hiring process.

For his part, Gullberg, 52, is ecstatic to be back serving in Gresham. His first day was Aug. 30.

"I have a strong heart for Gresham and I thought I could make a difference for the department and community," he said. "The people within the department and the city of Gresham are phenomenal, and I'm very excited to be here now."

Path back to Gresham

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - Chief Travis Gullberg took the reins at the Gresham Police Department in early August. Gullberg spent his formative years in East Multnomah County, and has always had a soft spot in his heart for Gresham. He was born and raised here — first living in Rockwood off Northeast 190th Avenue and Glisan Street, then moving to Southeast Portland near 148th and Division. His family made their way to Newport for a few years, enjoying beach life, before returning to East County. Gullberg is a Centennial graduate — Class of 1987 — and attended Mt. Hood Community College.

"I have strong ties and allegiances to the Gresham community," Gullberg said with a smile.

Those connections — his parents still live in Gresham — are the main reasons he applied for the position of chief. But back in the '90s, as a young man slightly reeling from being turned down as a Gresham reserve officer, Gullberg found himself looking east. He moved to Wyoming, where his brother worked in newspapers, to experience what it was like serving a smaller community. He first worked in private corrections, before becoming a police officer for the city of Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1996, a job he held for five years.

He said Wyoming was a culture shock. The weather was too cold, so when his wife Janet mentioned moving back to the Pacific Northwest, it was a sentiment Gullberg shared. "I guess I keep getting drawn back to this place," he said.

The couple moved back to the region with their two young boys, settling in the small community of Hockinson, just across the Columbia River in Washington. Gullberg also signed on with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office in 1998, an organization he would go on to serve with for more than two decades.

With the MCSO he worked in patrol, public information, detective, search and rescue, river patrol and dive team. He also found experience as a leader, serving as the former chief of police for Troutdale, and most recently helming the Community Partnership Unit and Transit Police Division.

During all of that, Gullberg continued to educate himself. He received a graduate certificate in criminal justice education from the University of Virginia, and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.

"You always have to be looking forward to plan and strategize your approach," Gullberg said.

Lessons and strategies

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Gresham Police Department wants to get back to connecting with the community by building trust and accountability. While working with the sheriff's office, Gullberg learned you can't arrest your way out of a problem. He was leading the MCSO river patrol unit as it faced an issue of derelict boats on the region's waterways. In 2010, following the recession, many people were struggling after losing their homes. Some began living in boats that were barely seaworthy. The vessels were sinking, causing dangerous situations.

"We had this impact on the environment and community, and we were trying to keep those boats afloat," Gullberg said.

In the past the solution would have been arrests and citations, forcibly removing the problem from the rivers. But Gullberg and the other deputies knew there was a better way. "We can't enforce our way out of everything," he said.

So the MCSO brought together community partners to reach out to homeless boaters. They offered a range of support, and at the bare minimum were able to provide needed repairs to boats to keep them from sinking.

For Gullberg that solution stuck with him. He wants to bring that innovative spirit and willingness to seek creative solutions to the of Gresham's chief. "I am up for the challenge and looking forward to the work," he said. "I am confident in the men and women who work for this department."

Gullberg is taking over during a time when law enforcement is under a microscope.

"We have had a pretty good relationship with the community over the years, but everyone in the professions needs to take a look at themselves," Gullberg said. "The calls for reforms are just."

The first steps, Gullberg said, is reviewing policies and procedures. That includes ensuring systems around accountability are robust and transparent. Gullberg wants to complete a lot of that work hand-in-hand with the elected leaders of the city.

"I feel very supported by council and the mayor — they are focused on providing the best services for the community and it has been a joy to work alongside them," he said.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - Deputy City Manager Corey Falls, left, and City Manager Nina Vetter both welcomed Chief Travis Gullberg during his swearing-in ceremony. One of the keys in his first months is addressing staffing. Law enforcement across the nation are struggling to fill departments, and Gullberg wants to put Gresham in a competitive position to retain and recruit officers. A major part of that, he said, is including a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens to ensure the department matches the makeup of the community.

"Despite what many say, this is a great time to be in police work," Gullberg said. "It is my job to reinforce that there is an opportunity to do a lot of good work for this city."

There are plenty of other concerns on the new chief's mind. He is working with his department to deal with the violence spreading across the region, which includes partnerships with community organizations and other law enforcement agencies. He also wants to continue connecting with nonprofit groups and neighborhood associations. "Every neighborhood has their own concerns, so we need to really listen and understand what their expectations for this department are," Gullberg said.

The new chief is optimistic. After the disappoint of not being hired all those years ago, Gullberg finally realized his dream and has hit the ground running. "I am super excited and super blessed to be here," Gullberg said with a smile.

Shootings by the numbers

Gun violence continues to trend in a troubling direction across the Portland-metro region, and locally in Gresham the numbers have already eclipsed last year's shootings.

So far in 2021, through Monday, Sept. 27, there have been 122 shooting incidents with 40 people being injured. Of those injuries, six people have been killed. That is already more than the total number of shootings in all of 2020.

Last year there were 103 shootings, with 18 injuries – two deaths.

"The level of violence, especially around guns, is concerning," said Gresham Chief of Police Travis Gullberg. "It's on everyone's mind (at the department)."

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