'Case Closed' for retiring King City police chief
When Chuck Fessler became the King City police chief in 2003, it wasn't exactly a coveted position.
He already had been working with the department as a contracted consultant, helping it recover from a 2002 scandal in which the former chief, James Brooks, was arrested for using multiple identities. Fessler had 27 years of experience at the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office under his belt, and he was willing to step up at a time when "the whole city was in a kind of turmoil," as he put it.
"Everything was in an uproar," Fessler added.
And it wasn't just that the previous chief had left under dishonorable circumstances. Neighboring police departments didn't want to work with King City, citing poor officer training. In 2006, a former King City officer was arrested on child pornography charges, delivering another blow to the department's reputation. Officers from the department often were blacklisted when applying for other jobs.
In his 14 years on the job, Fessler has managed to turn that poor reputation around, and to grow the department. With plans to retire on March 30, Fessler recently sat down with the Regal Courier to talk about his legacy, and the future of King City.
"One thing I found when I got here was, many of the departments in Washington County were an arm's length away from King City," Fessler said. "Because of the scandal, they didn't want to associate."
So Fessler started reaching out to fellow police chiefs in the county, including his old friend Ron Goodpaster, Tigard's chief of police at the time.
"This is a different environment," Fessler told his colleagues. "Things are going to change. I need your support to keep going."
And change they did. Fessler started taking in officers who had failed in other departments and giving them a second chance to succeed, making sure they received proper training and attention. He grew the department and brought in more women, including the King City's first black woman officer — something he takes pride in. He worked with the City Council to find more funding for the department, and instituted monthly "chat with the chief" sessions, where residents could talk with Fessler over cookies and coffee.
Over time, neighboring departments started working with King City officers more willingly. When King City officers were ready to move on, forces in Tigard and other nearby cities were happy to give them a job, something Fessler took as a sign that the department's reputation was improving.
"When I first got here, that wouldn't have happened," he said. "They wouldn't have touched a King City officer."
King City doesn't have a lot of commercial property, meaning the city doesn't collect much in the way of business taxes. During Fessler's tenure, King City residents have approved a local option levy for the police department with more than 60 percent of the vote each time it's been on the ballot.
"You can interpret that as an endorsement of the service we provide," Fessler said.
Now in his 70s, Fessler has the straight posture, straight face and straightforward speaking style of an old-school cop. He's no-nonsense but pleasant, and it's easy to see imagine him conversing with community members during his old "chat with the chief" sessions.
When asked a question about his accomplishments in King City, he's quick to clarify that they don't belong to just him. The community and City Council helped provide funding for him to add several more officers to the now seven-person force. His officers throughout the years, many of them second-chance hires, stepped up their game and have gone on to serve in more high-profile positions.
"We've taken a chance on them, and they've been successful," Fessler said.
And those residents who came to "chat with the chief" gave suggestions for Fessler to improve the town in myriad ways — some of which don't necessarily fit directly into his job description. For example, one woman told Fessler that she'd ride her bike around town more if there were bike racks, so he raised the funds to install five racks around the city.
"It wouldn't have happened" if she hadn't taken the initiative to tell him about it, Fessler said.
King City was in a state of flux when Fessler joined the department in 2003.
"That was the beginning of the change of the environment in King City — it was a multi-population where you had some seniors, and then you had this new development that was right in the beginning of its existence," the chief said. "Now you had younger people, you had an elementary school in the city boundaries. So the environment had really changed."
With the changes brought new tasks for the police force — domestic violence and welfare calls increased, for instance. During the 2008 recession, robberies in the town's four banks and four other adjoining banks shot up. Fessler saw two homicides during his reign, including a highly publicized one on Christmas Day of 2016.
Thanks to Fessler's work to improve his department's reputation, neighboring police forces were quick to provide backup when needed. And the King City officers were better trained and equipped to handle new tasks.
These days, a typical day on the King City beat might include five or six calls, ranging from noise complaints to domestic violence. "Or then there can be a day when you don't get any calls," Fessler added.
When Fessler started the job in 2003, he had a staff of three. Now he has a seven-person department, comprised of Fessler and six officers he's hired.
As he steps down, Fessler knows that "the new guys and gals" will face their own challenges, as King City's urban growth boundary may expand soon. He thinks his predecessors will do well, so long as they always keep the community in mind.
"I don't believe that community policing is a function of the department — I believe community policing is an attitude," he said. "No matter what assignment you have, you should think of community solutions for community problems."
With retirement a month away, Fessler said he doesn't have "any grandiose plans to take a cruise around the world." His second wife, Kathy, with whom he lives in West Linn, will continue working in the hotel industry. He'll still go up to Seattle often to see his stepdaughter and grandchildren, as well as his ex-wife, with whom he's on good terms.
Instead of taking that cruise, Fessler hopes to continue serving his community in a different way. Fessler spent many years as a volunteer Washington County CASA — that's a court-appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system — and he hopes to do the same soon in Clackamas County. He said that his experience as a police officer gives him special insight into the cases he takes on.
"You are able to maybe see things that a non-experienced person wouldn't see," he said.
Fessler joined the Multnomah County Sheriff Office in 1967, and he knows now is a good time to turn in his badge for good.
"It's a different generational attitude, and I've done my time," he said. "Plus, I'm getting old, and I don't have the same focus and innovation."
Mayor Ken Gibson, who has worked with Fessler for the last 10 years, predicts that "King City will miss Chuck, though the transition will be smooth because of his leadership."
"I truly appreciate his dedication to his position as chief and his commitment to the well-being of the citizens of King City," Gibson added. "He has led our team of officers with honor and grace."
Fessler said he's looking forward to seeing the new ideas his team comes up with after his retirement. Whatever those ideas may be, they'll be a lot easier to execute thanks to Fessler's determination to reform the department's image, and the growth that has happened under his watch.
"My slice of King City history is done," Fessler said. "Now they're going to a new horizon."
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