Before revamp, reserve deputies were rarely vetted
As the Columbia County Sheriff's Office retools its reserve deputy program to add more pre-screening and volunteer requirements, it will shed past practices that once employed volunteer cops with little to no background checks.
Records show that for decades volunteer cops at the Sheriff's Office were allowed in to the program without rigorous pre-screening. In fact, unbeknown to many in the Sheriff's Office, the most veteran volunteer had a felony conviction and was not legally allowed to carry a gun until 2013.
Kim Johns began volunteering with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office in 1992. His service mostly consisted of search and rescue missions and other auxiliary work that didn't require a gun or a badge.
By 1996, Johns, along with a fire lieutenant from the St. Helens Rural Fire District, was awarded a medal of valor for helping rescue two county residents from a rooftop amid raging waters during catastrophic flooding in Clatskanie.
The service awards continued, and Johns, a Warren resident and defense contractor who manufactures military-grade diving suits and tactical gear under the business name U.S.I.A., became a well-trained, highly decorated public safety volunteer.
"I've got letters and waivers that have allowed me to get into the Coast Guard Auxiliary with secret clearance," Johns notes. "I'm a current EMT and have been for 20-something years. A lot of people have made exceptions and authorized waivers on both the state level and national level. I've served three terms as a Department of Commerce appointee."
The 62-year-old business owner thumbs through folders of paper files in his St. Helens shop — EMT qualifications, service recognitions from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and a certificate recognizing Johns as a founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — to name a few.
In the early 2000s, as the War on Terror took shape, Johns recalls being tapped by the FBI to help gather counter terrorism intelligence during personal business trips to the Middle East.
Johns also proved helpful to CCSO by securing military-grade weapons and vehicles for the department through a government program that allows police agencies to acquire nonstandard equipment.
He recalls getting 12 M16 rifles and a handful of M14s.
"We got military weapons that I was able to take and, through a cooperative program with the Portland Police Bureau, I demilitarized those weapons from automatic weapons to semiautomatic weapons," Johns recalled.
Despite his deep-seated relationship with law enforcement, Johns carried a criminal past that went virtually unnoticed.
In 1984, Johns was arrested following a sting operation in Portland. Federal documents indicate Johns converted semiautomatic weapons into machine guns and illegally manufactured silencers. He was suspected of distributing cocaine, but was never directly linked to any drug crimes.
Johns was convicted in 1985, along with a codefendant, after he and a partner agreed to sell 11 machine guns and six silencers to undercover Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau agents in exchange for cash and a kilogram of cocaine at a Portland hotel.
The events are documented in presidential pardon applications. Johns has applied for clemency from his conviction three times since 1995, to no avail.
During a 1985 bench trial, Johns argued he only went along with the illegal weapons deal because he feared he'd be harmed if he tried to back out, federal documents state.
"It wasn't that I got caught doing criminal activity," Johns said last week. "The government created the activity and I was a willing participant. I made a bad decision."
Despite a five-year prison sentence, he served six months in jail for possession of a firearm with no serial number.
Johns was working alongside sheriff's deputies less than a decade later.
"All I can say is that I disclosed it truthfully in my application," Johns said of his initial application with the Sheriff's Office in 1992. "It was 35 years ago, a long time has gone by. I've done a lot for this community. I followed all the rules when I applied. I was interviewed."
He continued to volunteer until around 2002, before taking a hiatus. When he returned to active reserve status with CCSO in 2014, he was given a service weapon and a badge, becoming a full-fledged reserve deputy. Prior to his return, Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, among others, including FBI agents and other law enforcement officers, vouched for him in a court application to have his right to carry a firearm restored by Columbia Circuit Judge Jenefer Stenzel Grant in 2013.
"Mr. Johns is your atypical convicted felon," Dickerson wrote in a character affidavit for one of Johns' pardon applications. The affidavit was also submitted to the court along with Johns' appeal to have his firearms rights restored in Oregon.
"Convicted of a weapons offense in 1984, he has spent virtually every day since that time not only paying his debt to society, but also seeking to reverse the damage done to his name through his youthful mistake."
Kevin Dubanevich is an attorney with Portland-based law firm Stoll Berne, who previously served as the associate attorney general with the Oregon Department of Justice. He said Johns' history may be concerning, but not likely to trigger any state or federal review.
"Obviously, conducting a background check is the starting point. One would hope that anyone hired to be a reserve deputy has had a background check," Dubanevich said. "It's certainly possible that someone could have turned over a new leaf and become an upstanding citizen. Presumably, at that point, the circuit court judge looked at his almost 30 years of conduct, and if in that 30 years he had done everything right, well then, he's paid the penalty of the charges against him and I think we as a civil society have to respect that."
Dickerson stated via email this week that at the time Johns was made into a full reserve deputy in 2014, he had a legal right to carry a gun, which was all CCSO required of its reserves.
"I do not know what background was done on Mr. Johns in the 1990s," Dickerson stated, adding Johns was not serving in the capacity of a reserve with a gun and badge when he took office as sheriff in 2008. "Any past history Mr. Johns may have had would have been long ago and apart from any behavior we have witnessed in his many years of service to the Sheriff's Office."
Johns voluntarily stepped down from active reserve status in 2017, as CCSO began the process of revamping its reserve program to incorporate more requirements.
He maintains a close relationship with CCSO. A portion of the U.S.I.A. shop is used for storage of deputy uniforms that are typically discarded or never reused after someone leaves the department.
"I sew, so I take the names off and keep them here for when new people are hired," Johns said.
The role of volunteer cops
Reserve deputies serve in a wide capacity on behalf of the Sheriff's Office, ranging from paperwork and assistance with traffic control during public events to solo duty patrols, citations, arrests and use of force when necessary. In 2013, reserve deputy Tyler Miller was alongside a regular patrol deputy when the two became involved in an officer-involved shooting, along with St. Helens police officers.
Reserve deputies are prohibited from participating unless there is at least one on-duty deputy on shift at the same time.
Dickerson said the program will soon fall more in line with guidelines dictated by the Department of Safety Standards and Training, the agency responsible for conducting background checks and certifying peace officers in Oregon.
No state certification of reserve deputies
While Johns' service may seem like an anomaly, standards for reserve deputies are less rigid and consistent than those for private security officers.
It wasn't until 2015 that DPSST adopted standards for reserve deputies, requiring volunteers to undergo a background investigation prior to starting any law enforcement volunteer work, but the background checks aren't conducted by DPSST and instead are left up to agencies employing reserves.
Furthermore, DPSST standards aren't laws, and the agency does not certify reserve officers.
"There are no state standards for reserve officers," said Linsay Hale, professional standards division director with DPSST. Years ago, Hale said, legislators dictated a certification process that has never been enforced.
"There is still a designation of a certified reserve officer, however, there's never been any funding for it," Hale explained.
Instead, only full-time law enforcement officers and private security guards are state certified by DPSST.