My View: Gresham police union discredits deputy city manager
I have been deeply troubled by The Outlook's portrayal of the city of Gresham's Deputy City Manager Corey Falls.
Like everyone, I was astonished to watch the city manager, mayor and chief of police resign in such rapid succession. Like most, I was surprised when Falls, who's been acting as the city manager's closest coworker for the past two years, was passed over for the position of interim at June 10 City Council meeting. But I was especially concerned after reading the three stories The Outlook has published regarding Falls in the days since then.
In the June 12 story, The Outlook leaked Falls' complaint against the racism he's experienced at the city. More than half of the article consisted of a laundry list of complaints Falls made at former places of employment, and no time at all investigating the validity of his experiences here. On June 17, another Outlook article detailed the contents of Chief Sells' response to this complaint, which in addition to her abrupt retirement included the line "I am not a racist — I do abhor lazy people who get paid for not doing a job they are hired to do" in reference to Falls.
And in a submitted opinion piece appearing on The Outlook's Opinion page on June 15, Gresham's Police Officers' Association (union) President Matt Fagan called Falls an incompetent leader and blamed him for the failure of the city's equity work.
But as a city employee who has worked alongside Falls in his equity work as Deputy City Manager, I am convinced it is my privilege and obligation to share an alternate perspective — my own.
I worked with Corey Falls as part of the City's Equity Action Team (EAT). This is the committee Fagan refers to as an example of the "clear failure" of Falls' leadership. EAT was an internal committee for city employees to learn about systemic biases and implement positive changes in their own departments. All city employees, including police officers, were invited to participate. Interest in the committee was huge among non-police employees, with at least 100 attending over the course of EAT's lifespan. No police union members ever attended.
Fagan's naming of Falls as a "senior leadership member" of EAT is a mischaracterization of the committee's structure, which used a collaborative, team-led leadership model and a consensus-based decision-making process.
As part of EAT, Falls displayed calm leadership, clear vision and a welcoming attitude toward the overwhelmingly white employee base at the city. Our purpose was to explore the implementation of equity programs in departments from parks to permits to city planning. In addition, members of the leadership team began meeting with police officers to talk about ways to implement these kinds of equity programs into policing, although police issues were never brought up in large group meetings.
The reaction to the whole program was overwhelmingly positive, except for the negative reception Falls received from the one or two police officers in attendance at his presentations. I personally witnessed dismissals of Falls's personal experiences and outright denials of the principles he was teaching.
After a year of equity work, three members of the police department filed formal complaints against EAT, and the police union alleged that the city was now a hostile work environment for police. Outside counsel was hired to investigate. The police union launched its own investigation into three of EAT's leadership team, including Falls. They were asked to hand over more than 2,500 emails. All equity work from EAT was halted.
In short, the police union and three complainant officers felt they were being called racists. For evidence, they cited several moments they described as "anti-police" and "anti-white." The officers said they felt uncomfortable with the city manager's email endorsing EAT, which said "our historical systems disproportionately negatively impact our marginalized and vulnerable populations."
At an unrelated 2017 training that Falls didn't attend, a member of EAT made a comment that made a police officer uncomfortable. (Depending on the storyteller, it was either, "We don't need to hear any more from middle-aged white men," or, "I'd love to hear from more people of color and women.")
They also took issue with articles exchanged by EAT members on their SharePoint page, including a video thumbnail depicting a police officer arresting a Black man (not shown in the actual video). Officers said they felt attacked when someone linked a Vox article showing a graph of police violence and a photo of a protester wearing "Black Lives Matter" earrings.
The union steward, referencing this photo, incorrectly identified BLM as a terrorist organization. The independent investigation concluded that none of these points constituted either harassment or hostile work environment, but EAT was disbanded anyway.
EAT was in the midst of meaningful systemic change, and it was the police union's investigation, not Falls' leadership, that ended it. Fagan's assertion that an officer was told "his voice wasn't welcome" refers to an off-hand comment by someone else, a year before EAT was formed. His claim that Falls should have "foresee[n] potential resistance points for the police department and enact[ed] strategies to mitigate them" holds little water when these "resistance points" included unrelated thumbnails and photos of earrings.
What I hope is most clear, though, is that Fagan's insistence that race is not involved in the police department's conflict with Falls has very little to stand on when his organization was shutting down alleged "anti-whiteness" (real or imagined) just last year. It displays a troubling tendency among police and city officials to cry "I am not a racist" while effectively silencing anti-racist work. Gresham now has no equity committee. Gresham nearly had no police chief. And it's worth noting that at no time were racist accusations actually made. Falls never made a public accusation against Sells; we only know about it because The Outlook published his complaint without his consent. No one on EAT held anti-white or anti-police discussions; the officers just felt like we might.
When Sells, Fagan and the three complainants demand that they're "not racist," it is because they believe their personal character is under attack. But their personal character was never in question; it is the systemic impact of their decisions that matter.
I make no claims regarding Fagan's or Sells' personal feelings about race. But I do know that I saw the police union halt a citywide equity effort and the union president blame its failure on a Black man's "incompetence."
Fagan may be a good officer or good person, but he's not being honest about this. I am left wondering whether Fagan's other examples of Falls' "laziness" were similarly mischaracterized.
In considering Falls for the permament city manager position, the city of Gresham has the opportunity to hire a competent, forward-thinking leader, and to promote the welfare of Black people above the feelings of white people in power.
In the past, we've failed to do so, but here we have a chance to do better. I support Corey Falls for city manager, and call on the police department to unify in self-reflection and transparency with Falls in leadership. In doing so they have an opportunity to support their rapidly diversifying city in a new way, and to prove anti-racist intent with antiracist actions.
Amy Evans is a program technician at the city of Gresham.
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