Sherwood Police Chief Jeff Groth says the 18 months — a timeframe dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and punctuated by the social justice movements following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers — have proved to be the toughest of his 32 years in law enforcement.
Last week, Groth announced he would be retiring Dec. 31 after 14 years at the helm of the Sherwood Police Department.
During a recent interview, Groth said what he'll miss most about his job are the people he works with, calling them an amazing group of professionals.
"I'm going to miss seeing them every day, and the relationships that you build and just the family atmosphere that we have here and the work that's done," Groth said about the police department, which employs close to 30 sworn officers.
Groth was initially hired as a patrol officer for the Tualatin Police Department after completing his bachelor's degree at Western Oregon University in 1989. He served with that department for more than 18 years before being hired in Sherwood, a city of 20,000 residents.
One of the aspects of his tenure that Groth is particularly proud of is the "relational policing" the Sherwood Police Department has practiced for about a decade, calling it a "game-changer" when it comes to public safety.
"Relationships change everything," he said, adding that it's a more intentional relationship-building approach rather than a quick contact or two with a community member. "It's finding opportunities, ways and using methods to actually not just be present, but actually engage with and get to know the community. And that's what police departments have to do to be successful."
In the past, Groth said he made sure that every member of the Sherwood Police Department would come in and introduce themselves by name to both the Sherwood Community Academy and the Sherwood City University programs, which are citizen academies that focus on learning about police work and how the city works.
Groth also helped create the Sherwood Youth Substance Abuse Team, a program he called a huge success.
"It's a diversion program that really creates an opportunity for first-time offenders to get past the mistake and make the changes and change the behaviors they need to and become even more productive," he said. The program is a partnership between Sherwood police, the Washington County Juvenile Department and the Sherwood School District.
Regarding the question of how the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and the subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations have changed policing in general, Groth responded:
"There's a lot of policing that needed to change desperately (nationally), and so anything that could be a catalyst, and certainly with George Floyd, (and) the social justice movement as a result of what happened to George Floyd, has certainly been a catalyst — and so it has it created change. In places where good policing has existed for a long time, and continues to exist, it has caused reflection, and maybe some change, but the reality is in places like Sherwood, there's not as much change that can happen because it's already there, right?"
Groth said some of the reforms sought in big-city police departments after Floyd's death are policies or initiatives that were already in place in Sherwood. Police officers have been wearing body-worn cameras for years in Sherwood. The department has long prohibited chokeholds as well.
"I reached out to several community members of our community, people of color, that share harrowing stories and deal with policing, but it wasn't in Sherwood. And almost to the person, they said, 'But you know what, in Sherwood, I feel differently. I feel comfortable. I've never had those issues,'" Groth said.
In July 2020, Sherwood's Main Street was the site of a raucous but peaceful rally between supporters of then-President Donald Trump, in what was called an "All Kids Matter" rally, and counter-demonstrators across the street from them hosting a "Black Kids Matter" event.
Groth said both COVID-19 and the racial justice movement came about at a time when police really needed to spend more time with the community, strengthening relationships — something that was sidelined because of the pandemic.
Those two issues, he said, have resulted in the most difficult time he has experienced in his three decades in police work.
"It's been more difficult for officers and the women and men serving, just because of what they've endured," Groth said about what he said is blame being placed solely on police. He argues there is injustice in every aspect of society, including healthcare, education and beyond — including, but not just, law enforcement.
"Police officers bore the brunt of all of that, which I think was entirely unfair, but police officers as a group, as a societal institution, have broad, strong shoulders … so they keep performing day in and day out. Then on top of that, you have COVID, and COVID for policing, for first responders, was … an invisible killer," he said.
Groth said police are trained to recognize the reality of going into dangerous situations where there is usually an identifiable bad guy.
"With COVID, you can bring that home and potentially kill or injure family members without even knowing it," Groth said.
Across the United States, COVID-19 has been the leading cause of death among police officers in 2020 and 2021, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Despite the challenges they are facing, Groth said he's proud to say that Sherwood and other police departments sent officers out every single day and continue to protect their communities.
During his tenure in law enforcement, Groth said he's said he's seen his fair share of nastiness.
"There's just no way that I get through this without God, and I want people to know that. My faith in the Lord has carried me through multiple child abuse investigations and the horrible things that happen to kids and children and man's inhumanity to man," he said.
Groth's plans in retirement include hunting, fishing, taking longer vacations and spending time with his family, adding that his wife, Cyndi, has been supportive throughout his career.
What he won't miss is the phone ringing at all hours. He said he will welcome full nights of sleep without interruptions.
Currently a Tualatin resident, Groth plans to soon move to Central Oregon.
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