The Gresham Police Department has a listening problem
On Tuesday, the city of Gresham released to the public the findings of an outside legal investigation looking at claims made in 2020 about the local police department, Chief Sells, and Deputy City Manager Corey Falls.
For average folks like myself trying to pay attention to what has happened the past few years, the investigation is illuminating — and speaks to a large problem within our Police Department.
For context, Corey Falls was serving as the Sheriff of Jackson County, Ore., when he applied to be Gresham's chief of police in 2016. Because the City Council had initiated a work plan to implement President Obama's 21st Century Policing reforms, Falls was instead asked to take a new senior position that would focus on public safety strategy and reform, including a focus on issues of equity and inclusion.
Falls, a Black man, had previously brought up issues related to systemic racism in law enforcement; this caused Gresham officers who looked into his background to bristle at his leadership, and routinely referred to him as the "failed chief candidate."
Chief Sells, who was in a subordinate role, dismissed the work Falls was hired to do, and refused to implement plans for 21st Century police reforms, as well as equity or inclusion program activities (including necessary trainings).
Instead, Sells fostered a culture within the department which dismissed his work and lacked professionalism or respect. Last fall, Sells shared a letter alleging that Falls was "lazy." Falls was serving in the role of Deputy City Manager, where he has earned praise from many in the community for leading the city's COVID-19 response.
The outside investigation shows that the mistreatment of Falls is just one example indicative of a long pattern of retaliation against those who seek inclusivity and equity in our community. It reinforces the numerous testimonies I have heard first hand demonstrating that the Gresham Police Department is not able to listen to the concerns of our diverse city.
The report is rife with examples of Chief Sells, top police command staff, and former Fire Chief Greg Matthews responding defensively, aggressively and childishly to concerns and comments brought to them — both from their peers like Falls but also from concerned citizens.
Here's one example: Perhaps you have seen the Gresham police cars with the phrase "Do you get nervous when we follow you? Follow us back" (on FB and Twitter). When a concerned citizen reached out in May 2020 to give feedback on what it was like to see those phrases coming from minority communities who are disproportionately profiled by the police, her feedback was dismissed. Police officers responded by saying it was a "lighthearted joke" and others mistakenly attributed the complaint to Falls.
In 2015, renowned Portland educator Dr. Bishop Steven Holt was contracted by the Gresham Police Department to host training and listening sessions on culturally diverse communities. Chief Sells was in attendance when one of her officers interrupted Holt mid sentence to say "who the f___ are you?"
Holt was also told by a commanding level officer to research the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case and come back and talk "rationally" about if the officer involved was justified in using deadly force.
Ultimately, this kind of insensitive and aggressive behavior was not corrected, and Sells reduced the number of trainings Bishop Holt did with the force.
The Gresham Police Department has a listening problem, and this impacts all of us. In the report published on Tuesday, there are dozens of documented examples of the police department not only ignoring community feedback, but responding defensively and cultivating a culture where people are punished for speaking up.
I do not feel safe knowing this is the general culture of the police department. Our elected leaders — including the mayor and City Council — need to respond to the public investigation and they need to select a permanent city manager who listens to our communities.
Most importantly, Gresham needs a culture change that will prioritize diversity and justice, even in charged areas such as policing.
Corey Falls deserved better, and we do too.
Public apologies should be made. Complicit managers should be disciplined. Chief Sells, who actively impeded the work of police reform, equity and inclusion within the department, should be fired.
As a concerned citizen with two kids in the local public school system here in Rockwood, I am someone who is deeply invested in having a neighborhood that is safe for everyone. But the Gresham Police Department is not an institution I feel I can look up to when it comes to issues of safety and community building.
This is partly because of its proven track record of not listening or learning from marginalized community members, but also because it is actively creating a culture where it is difficult to raise concerns and questions.
Instead, I am looking to the rich resources of the diversity of my neighbors who make Rockwood such a wonderful place to live. Together, through relationships and a shared commitment to making our place better for everyone, we work together and listen to each other when we have concerns and prioritize the voices of the most marginalized. But I am afraid we will make little headway if we continue to enable and support a police department that actively refuses to do the same.
Danielle Mayfield is a writer and English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher who lives in Rockwood. Her most recent book is The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety and Power.
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