The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office needs a leader highly skilled in the complexities of the day-to-day operation of the $171 million-plus department delivering core services in law enforcement and corrections.
But in today's evolving world of highly visual instances of police abuse of force, voters are demanding leadership that cultivates a cultural shift toward equal justice for BIPOC communities.
It's a heavy lift for anyone. It doesn't make it easier for voters when they're blessed — or cursed — with a choice between two highly qualified candidates: Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey O'Donnell and Capt. Derrick Peterson.
Both candidates are eager to talk about what's right in the department and, more importantly, willing to address some shortcomings, including a need for the next sheriff to be much more visible in the various communities that make up a diverse county.
Morrisey O'Donnell has the obvious edge in law enforcement. She'll be ready on Day One to lead the law enforcement and corrections sides of this 800-person department. O'Donnell has worked for the MCSO for more than 25 years, and if elected she'll become the first woman in county history to serve as sheriff. She'll also be the first sheriff to hold certifications in corrections and law enforcement when she takes office.
O'Donnell spent the first 15 years of her career on the corrections side where she developed her interest in exploring leadership roles. As chief deputy of Corrections Services, she took pride in helping people make the successful transition out of corrections and back into the community.
Then, in 2019 she was appointed chief deputy of the Law Enforcement Division. The latter has countywide involvement on the Major Crimes Team, domestic violence/gun dispossession supervision, homeless outreach, East Metro Gang Enforcement Team, SWAT and rapid response teams, just to name just a few. About a year ago she was named undersheriff, which is second-in-command of the overall department.
Capt. Peterson would be the first African American to be elected sheriff (Lee Brown was appointed to the position in 1974 and served two years). He went to work as a corrections officer 35 years ago, spending the past 25 in management roles. He's served in most — if not all — command posts within the corrections side of the house, including chief deputy. He's the better candidate in the discussion of equal justice issues — and if that's your top priority, he should get your vote.
Peterson spent decades as a community advocate. As president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the father of a young Black man living in the county, no one is better positioned to address racial- and equal-justice issues. Lastly, he's informed by his own lived experiences. A conversation with Peterson reveals a man emotionally vested in meaningful police reform.
In a perfect world, Multnomah County's voters would have one candidate who encapsulates the best of O'Donnell and Peterson. They don't.
If Peterson has an Achilles heel, it's his inexperience on the law enforcement side of the equation. If he were elected to the office of Sheriff he would have one year from the date of taking office to obtain his basic police certification, which includes completion of the basic police course, completing the police field training manual, having current CPR/First Aid on file, and applying for his basic police certification. But even then, he'll be years behind O'Donnell in law enforcement experience.
By virtue of her experience on both sides of the department, O'Donnell is the better choice for Multnomah County sheriff.
But if O'Donnell is as smart as she seems, she will already have considered Peterson as her undersheriff. In that capacity, he would learn the ropes of leading criminal investigations while also trailblazing advances in racial and social justice.
This might be a little awkward for O'Donnell as she provides Peterson with the training and expertise he needs for a successful rematch in another four years. But that's a race for another day.
In the meantime, Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey O'Donnell is the best choice today to take on the job as Multnomah County's next sheriff.
Note: This story was updated to clarity that Lee Brown was the first African American to serve as Multnomah County Sheriff, though he was not elected to the post.
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