Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley shares thoughts on lawbreakers, law enforcement
Columbia County and Multnomah County are next-door neighbors in northwest Oregon.
But Columbia County — greater in size but much smaller in population and much more rural than Oregon's most populous county — sometimes seems as if it exists on a different planet.
While Columbia County continues its efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the summer's historic wildfires, downtown Portland has suffered in other ways, too.
Though Portlanders have battled the coronavirus and wildfires like the rest of the state, those who live downtown have also had to contend with more than three months of protests — many accompanied by violence — that began following the death in police custody of George Floyd.
As America struggles to deal with the aftermath of Floyd's death, charges of systemic racism and the violence that has often accompanied protests, the Spotlight reached out to Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley for his unique opinions related to law enforcement. Pixley, 46 and a resident of Scappoose, has served as sheriff since 2019 and in Columbia County law enforcement for 16 years.
"The vast majority of cops take on this job and responsibility out of a sense of duty to their fellow man and to their communities."
— Brian Pixley,
Columbia County Sheriff
Pixley began his law enforcement career in 2003 as a corrections deputy at the Columbia County Sheriff's Office. After that, he worked as a patrol officer for the Scappoose Police Department from 2006-2010. He returned to the Columbia County Sheriff's Office in 2010 as a patrol deputy, and since then, has served as a marine deputy, patrol and corrections sergeant, and a patrol and corrections lieutenant. Then, in 2018, he was elected the 33rd Columbia County Sheriff.
As protests have carried on in downtown Portland (and more recently, in some outlying areas and at Portland Police Bureau's Northeast and North precincts), there have been endless discussions, news stories and opinion pieces — both locally and nationally — about law enforcement's response and role.
For his part, Pixley draws a defining line between peaceful protest on one hand, and violence, looting and arson on the other.
"I believe in the peaceful right to protest and have walked alongside our citizens and (Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier) in supporting Black Lives Matter," he said. "(But) there is a distinct difference between peaceful protesting and looting, arson and assault. Individuals who break the law must be held accountable for their crimes."
While some people believe that police ought to stay out of the way during protests, and others advocate greater use of manpower and force to stop violence, looting and arson, Pixley said this much is obvious — removing police enforcement is not the answer.
"I am surprised by the lack of response to the criminal behavior and how the Portland Police Bureau has been unable to hold criminals accountable because of leadership decisions," he said. "I think this was easily predicted in the beginning. As lawlessness goes unchecked, people will continue to push the envelope until they are challenged and held responsible."
Defund the police?
One of the latest political movements associated with the recent protests has been the drive to "defund the police." Whether that means literally abolishing police or instead redirecting funding away from the police to other government agencies, Pixley did not hesitate to express his opposition.
"The concept of defunding the police is not sustainable if we want to protect our citizens," Pixley said. "In my 17 years in law enforcement, I have seen our responsibilities grow each year, yet no additional funding is allocated to law enforcement.
"I have seen populations rise and (the) number of officers and deputies decrease. Deputies are now responsible for protecting the constitutional rights of all people, preventing crime, investigating crime, responding to mental health crises, assisting parents with unruly children, providing relationship counseling, being asked to act as attorney in civil matters and so much more. Any additional cuts to funding will render police incapable of doing the basic job of protecting our community from crime. Instead, I believe we should focus on allowing law enforcement to get back to enforcing the law and preventing (and) investigating crimes."
In another recent development, many municipalities across the country have experimented with "no bail" policies — allowing people arrested for minor offenses to be quickly released without paying any bail.
Pixley agrees that the current bail system is broken, but instead advocates for bail reform.
"I believe the current bail system needs to be fixed. It allows people who have money to be bailed out while awaiting trial, while those that can't afford bail sit in jail," he said. "I believe individuals who have not shown a track record of failure to appear and who are not a danger to society should be released until trial, providing they abide by the necessary conditions."
'The cops are racist and brutal'
At the heart of everything — the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and the protests and riots that followed — are questions of systemic racism and police brutality. Pixley said he believes that the underpinnings of our police systems are sound, but that more needs to be done to root out individual racism and punish those who violate established standards.
"I am aware that racist and/or brutal individuals exist in some police divisions around the country, however, the vast majority of cops take on this job and responsibility out of a sense of duty to their fellow man and to their communities," Pixley said, emphasizing that racism is not tolerated within the Sheriff's Office and reports of racially motivated behavior are investigated by Oregon's professional standards committee. "The cops I work with have been trained to be extremely thoughtful about any use of force and to try to deescalate the situation before using force."
Pixley also said he supports the continued use of body cameras by CCSO deputies (they began using them in 2015), both on patrol and at the jail.
"Body cameras are a useful tool that help both police and citizens to be held accountable for their interactions," he said.
Moving forward, Pixley said that he and his deputies plan to keep on working hard and following the law.
"We simply investigate the crimes, make arrests, cite if appropriate, write reports and send the reports to the DA's office," he added.
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