Gresham police closing ranks as Chief Robin Sells returns
For one Black Gresham police officer struggling with the culture shock of moving from Atlanta to East Multnomah County, frank conversations with his Chief of Police made all the difference.
Gabriel Sey was employed at the Gresham Police Department from July 2015 to March 2019. He was born in Ghana — in West Africa — and grew up in Chicago. Before joining the Gresham Department, he was an officer with the Atlanta Police Department for more than two years.
"Coming to Oregon and Gresham from Atlanta was a culture shock," he wrote in a letter to Gresham City Council. "I was not necessarily always understood culturally, and I will not (pretend) that things were always easy and pleasant while being in Gresham."
For Sey, the person who made the difference was Chief Robin Sells. He said the pair would often speak about race, racism and the role of law enforcement in bridging gaps between communities. The chief, Sey said, still reaches out to him to ask after his family despite his return to Atlanta.
"Chief Sells would listen to my perspective and she and I had several conversations in which I learned her heart and her desire to care for people in general — all people," Sey wrote. "I stand with Sells"
The Gresham Police Department has closed ranks around its momentarily retired, and now returned, chief of police. Current and former officers have praised her efforts in supporting the department and her officers, all in the midst of questions and calls for reform coming from within Gresham City Hall and the community at large.
Sells announced her surprising retirement on June 11, following the high-profile, and similarly unexpected retirement of Gresham City Manager Erik Kvarsten. Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis resigned a few days later, leaving a void of leadership at the highest levels of the city.
Two weeks later, Sells rescinded her decision, returning to her role Monday morning, June 29. Sells told The Outlook she doesn't plan on speaking publicly about her retirement or return any time in the near future.
When she first retired, Sells said the decision came, "As I have reflected on my long career and approach a milestone birthday, I have decided the moment has come for me to spend time with my family."
But she later sent a letter that appeared to point toward threats of being labeled a racist by other city leaders, forcing her into an early retirement.
Sgt. Jon Beal, who has worked in Gresham for more than seven years, said Sells is the best police chief he has ever worked for.
"It was a travesty to see her run out of her job by overzealous politicians and city leaders," Beal wrote of her retirement. "No one I've worked for has been able to accomplish in the community what Robin did in her years here."
Accusations of racism
The main thrust of accusations of racism against Sells seemingly center on an incident during a department awards banquet about one year after she was named chief of police.
She referenced the phrase "Gnome Lives Matter" during a presentation, which allegedly didn't sit well with some in the audience as a play on Black Lives Matter.
Sells said the joke stemmed from a gift by her children. They sent her a Los Angeles Dodgers garden gnome to put in the grassy area outside her office. Some officers took that gnome as a prank, sending it on a tour across the country and snapping photos back to Sells. In a 2016 interview with The Outlook, Sells spoke about the prank and shared some of the taunting photos.
"At an awards banquet the gnome was still missing in action, so I said, 'folks, it's time to return my gnome, as gnome lives matter also,'" Sells explained.
An internal letter penned by Deputy City Manager Corey Falls about the subtle racism and lack of support for employees of color in Gresham also appeared to be a sticking point for Sells.
Falls, a Black man, wrote about his experience working in the Gresham Police Department and City Hall.
"My reception into the city of Gresham has been at best dismal," Falls wrote. "It was very clear to me that those in (leadership) were not going to accept or support a Black man in a leadership position."
Falls was hired by Gresham Police Department to serve as the director of police services and 21st century policing. He had been a finalist for the role of chief alongside Sells, and Gresham created the new role to bring him to the department. At the time, the city announced he would answer directly to City Manager Kvarsten, not Sells.
Falls was to eliminate potential bias within the department by focusing on data and implementing new practices. He claimed when he submitted his plan for reforms, he was ignored.
While Falls never directly mentions Sells in his letter, the chief fired back in her own message to Gresham City Council.
"Despite what you have heard, I can flat guarantee you that I am not a racist," Sells wrote.
Sells also wrote she never stood in Falls' way during his time at the department, and that his lack of concrete solutions were because of his own failings. These sentiments were echoed by the Gresham Police Officers Association, which made a vote of no confidence against Falls.
There appears to be a major rift between Falls and Sells, which could resurface if he's chosen as Gresham's permanent city manager. In a statement, Kvarsten — who will step away July 9 — said his successor "will need to work with council, the police department, and the community to build trust and advance pressing law enforcement policy reforms."
Sabrina Homewytewa, who has been on the Gresham police force for five years, is currently serving Oregon Army National Guard duties in Qatar.
She pointed to Sells' willingness to step beyond the normal duties of a police chief, and the support she gives to her officers. Homewytewa also pushed back against accusations that the Gresham Police Department has a racist culture.
"As a minority in more ways (than) one, I am appalled at the insinuation that the department I represent and dedicate my professional career to serving is being dragged through the dirt in the media where our citizens and others may be getting misinformation," she wrote.
Homewytewa's father was Native American — belonging to the Hopi and Tohono O'odham tribes of which she, too, holds membership — and her mother is Hispanic. Homewytewa also wrote she is a lesbian.
"I, myself, as a member of the Gresham Police Department, have never been the subject of any kind of mistreatment, bias, prejudice or ever had anything withheld from me because of my heritage or way of life," she wrote.
Gresham by the numbers
A public records request made to the Gresham Police Department unearthed three complaints of excessive force have been filed in the last three years.
Two complaints were filed in 2018, one in 2019, and none have been made so far in 2020. In all three cases, an investigation determined the allegations were unfounded or the officers' actions were within policy, leading to no disciplinary action.
The city does not collect demographic data as to who filed the complaints. A city spokesperson said the Gresham Department fields about 74,000 calls each year.
"Our officers are trained — and in fact required — to de-escalate whenever possible," said Elizabeth Coffey, Gresham communications director. "While we can't measure how many times that de-escalation is employed, since it is part of everyday practice, these low numbers would indicate that our use of de-escalation is successful."
According to 2019 data, five Gresham officers identified as black, four as Asian, one as Pacific Islander, three as Native American, eight as Latino/Hispanic and 110 as white. Compared to 2015, the number of black officers increased by 2.15%; Asian by 1.4%; Native American by 1.5%; and Latino by 2.7%.
Sells told The Outlook last fall that while the numbers were trending in the right direction, there was still room for improvement.
She pointed to a need for officers who are able to speak multiple languages. Gresham has one of the most diverse populations in all of Oregon, and officers with the ability to communicate while responding to a call can help de-escalate and calm community members.
Sells also wants to recruit more female officers. Studies have shown hiring more women into law enforcement tends to produce fewer conflicts. The benchmark for most departments is to have at least 10% of officers be women — a percentage Gresham is still striving to hit.
"Women officers tend to use excessive force less often and don't generate the same number of complaints," Sells told The Outlook in 2019. "We don't cause the same problems."
She has also used her time as chief for promote more positive interactions with the community.
She implemented small things like having officers pass out stickers and stuffed animals to children. She encouraged conversations between members of the department and the community, most notably through Coffee with a Cop gatherings; revamped the cadet program to get youths involved in their communities; and implemented a culture within the department that has officers competitively seeking volunteer opportunities.
Sells was also at the helm when Gresham implemented body cameras for all sworn officers at the beginning of this year.
Now, she returns to a department that may undergo changes in the coming months, as marches and calls for reforms continue.
"This is a challenging time for our nation and our community, and I'd like Gresham residents to know that our police officers are dedicated to earning the trust of the community," Sells said.
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