19 months of sheriff-led policing leaves good impression in Cornelius

Gene Moss was sowrn in in front of the Cornelius City Council. A year and a half ago, the Dutch Bros. in Cornelius started attracting a lot more attention from law enforcement officers — but not because the coffee kiosk was engaged in illegal activity or had added new menu items.

It was because the Washington County Sheriff’s Office had taken over the Cornelius Police Department.

“I’ve seen an improvement in community engagement,” said Molly Black, a Dutch Bros. barista and 12-year Cornelius resident. “Officers are always checking in on us.”

On July 1, 2014, Cornelius Police Chief Ken Summers stepped down and handed the reins to Washington County Sheriff’s Lt. Gene Moss.

Black wasn’t the only one who noticed a change at that point.

“I’ve seen quite a difference,” said Peggy Stout, manager of the Plaid Pantry on 10th Avenue and Adair Street. Stout said she used to see drug deals going on near her store, but since the merger, “the drug activity has lessened. I’m really happy with it.”

Dave Schmidt, a longtime resident of crime-ridden South Ivy Street, thinks the deputies are more community oriented. “The Washington County officers seem real friendly,” he said. “There was a rough group of Cornelius officers before.”

And now the guard has changed again. Last month, Moss left the chief position, passing the CPD chief baton to Lt. Al Roque (rhymes with croquet), who was part of the administrative team when Moss first stepped in.

What did Moss do to earn residents and business owners’ positive comments? Did the merger fall short in any way under his tenure? The Hillsboro Tribune looked into some key features of the arrangement to find out.

Staff changes

This might be the merger’s biggest benefit. Beforehand, Cornelius officers were sharply split, with accusations and lawsuits flying between entrenched camps whose animosity rivaled that of the gang members they were charged with policing.

When Moss took over, the 12 CPD officers all trained to become deputies and eight left Cornelius, opting to cover other WCSO beats.

With an influx of new people, departmental tensions eased and communication improved.

In addition, Moss ensured that at least two deputies were on duty at all times.

Previously, Summers said, vacation and sick leave had pulled CPD officers away so often there was usually only one on duty. “The ratio of activity-per-officer we have is the highest in the county,” he said in July 2013. “They are going from call to call and don’t have time for follow-ups.”

The WCSO merge also has drawn other deputies to use Cornelius as their headquarters, including eight to 12 “west end” deputies who patrol all county land west of Hillsboro. Occasional K-9 and marine deputies also stop at the station while in the area.

All respond to local calls when necessary, said Ray, who couldn’t show how often these extra deputies have helped handle Cornelius incidents because, he said, WCSO has no computer program that could easily provide that information.

Last September, when CPD deputies got the option to rotate to other Washington County beats, six of the 10 patrol deputies left. Moss says he encouraged two CPD veterans to try different posts in order to get more experience. Two other deputies were bumped out by more senior deputies (15 years experience) who wanted to come to Cornelius, Moss said.

And the other two wanted more flexibility with their shift assignments and days off. In a small department such as Cornelius, that flexibility is limited, Moss said.

Latino outreach

As of 2010, the U.S. Census recorded 50.1 percent of Cornelius’ roughly 12,000 citizens as Latino, compared to 44.4 “white alone” citizens.

But in June 2014, the city’s police department had no Spanish-fluent officers. The July merger brought a Spanish-fluent patrol deputy and a Spanish-fluent lieutenant (Al Roque), but when Roque left last July to work in WCSO’s enforcement division, CPD went back down to one Spanish speaker.

Two bilingual “west end” deputies are headquartered in Cornelius and other Spanish speakers from WCSO, Hillsboro or Forest Grove are “on call,” Moss said.

But officers waiting for bilingual backup could miss crucial information.

Former Cornelius police chief Paul Rubenstein recalls asking for a driver’s license after pulling over a carload of Latino youths who obviously assumed the gringo officer wouldn’t understand them. “Tell him your name is (Ramirez)! Don’t tell him where you hid your wallet!” they advised their friend, continuing until Rubenstein finally said, “’Ahora, en pasamos — con verdad” (“OK, let’s start over — with the truth”).

In July, during a Cornelius City Council review of the department, Council President Dave Schamp pressed Moss to bring in more Spanish-speaking officers. In September, when deputies rotated assignments, that’s what happened.

The CPD now has three Spanish-fluent patrol deputies — including one female officer — in addition to their new chief, Roque, for a total of four on staff.

New or improved programs

n Bike patrol. Moss put seven Cornelius deputies through two week-long training sessions that qualified them for bike patrol. He has also used reserve deputies as bike officers.

The training process is grueling, said WCSO spokesman Bob Ray. Officers learn how to shield themselves with the bike, how to crash without getting hurt, how to get off a bike and shoot, among other things.

“It’s not easy,” Ray said.

On a bike, it’s easier to interact with people who are working in their yards or walking outside, Moss said. And if stealth is important in responding to a call, he said, “you can imagine how much quieter you can be.”COURTESY PHOTO - Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett (right) greets Cornelius residents as two bike patrol officers look on. Cornelius bike officers have patrolled crowds at Harlemann Park events, as well as the downtown core area and neighborhoods.

Usually bike officers work in pairs or near other on-duty patrol officers for backup purposes if a problem arises.

They’ve made no arrests yet but will be used more as the weather improves, Ray said.

n Premise checks. With more than one officer on each shift now, Moss has been able to make nightly premise checks a higher priority — not only checking businesses but leaving cards so owners know deputies have been there.

“We’ve had great response on that,” he said.

n School outreach. Moss brought in the WCSO’s School Resource Officer to train Cornelius deputies, one of whom officially schedules a couple visits per month to each of the city’s schools (three public, one private).

Besides checking in with administrators, deputies often eat lunch with students or hang out on the playground, hoping to make connections that will encourage children to discuss problems, Moss said.

According to staff at Free Orchards and Echo Shaw elementary schools, the visits are mostly with administrators, although one deputy visits an Echo Shaw classroom.

At Cornelius Elementary, school secretary Irene French said deputies sometimes eat lunch with the children or play with them at recess. “They give them stickers. Even I get stickers,” she said.

But that’s not new, said French, who has worked there 18 years. Former Cornelius officers Brian and Bruce Schmid used to stop in even more often, she said. “They’d come in the building and were surrounded by the kids,” she said. “From the teacher’s lounge we could see them running with the kids on the playground.”

Self-initiated calls

The first year of the merger saw a 23 percent increase in actions sparked by a deputy’s own initiative rather than by a call, including traffic stops, neighborhood patrols, premise checks, sex-offender checks, warrant services, helping motorists and more.

In addition, Moss requires deputies to record what they do — something Summers said he tried but failed to institute. “That was a cultural thing,” said Summers, who feels he never got an accurate sense of how his officers spent all their time.

“To this day, I just don’t think they were doing anywhere near the self-initiated activities they should have been doing,” Summers said. “They were just responding to calls. And there were a lot of calls. But they weren’t fully maximizing their shift.”


Initial hopes that a merger with the WCSO would cost less or equal to what residents were already paying for CPD services dwindled when it became clear the sheriff was planning to improve the quality of service — keeping two officers on duty at all times, for example.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - (L-R) Deputies Jordan Weston, Chris Plewik and Brian McLeod work beneath decorative snowflakes in the conference room at the Cornelius Police Department, which used to be tense and dysfunctional before merging with the Washington County Sheriffs Office.

On the other hand, said City Manager Rob Drake, Moss helped bring down overtime and legal costs, which had previously caused the CPD to spend far more than what city officials expected.

In 2012-13, for example, the CPD’s actual costs of $2.055 million rose to $2.188 million after adding in legal costs for the many lawsuits filed by disgruntled officers, Drake said.

That’s roughly $100,000 more than in the first year of the merger, fiscal year 2014-15, when the department spent $2.089 million.

Overtime costs were still a bit of a factor that year, Drake said, due to both an injured officer and to the final chapters of some CPD-related lawsuits.

Without those problems, city council members now expect this year’s costs to be even lower, with the CPD budget set at $2,075,176.

In new hands

Some Cornelius citizens haven’t noticed a difference since the merge. But that’s because they thought the previous service was also good. Nine-year resident Susan Lorentzen, a receptionist at Betty’s Dog Grooming, said she still sees patrol cars passing by and still enjoys taking her grandchildren to National Night Out. “There wasn’t a lot of change,” she said. “People still feel really safe.”

With Moss being promoted to commander and leaving for new WCSO duties, the CPD is now in the hands of Roque, who started here as a sergeant in July 2014 but is now a lieutenant — facing high expectations.

“I’ve heard nothing but good from citizens and business people about this change,” said Summers, who still visits Cornelius.

“We miss you,” he says they tell him, “but boy, this is great.”