West Linn Chief Peter Mahuna is eager to continue leading WLPD forward
For newly appointed West Linn Police Chief Peter Mahuna, responding to criticism was one of the biggest challenges of leading the West Linn Police Department as interim chief. Still, he stressed that he's willing to take ownership for his mistakes and those of the department.
Mahuna came to WLPD in 2018 from the Portland Police Bureau, where he worked for 26 years but never had to directly deal with tough questions from the press and upset citizens. He said learning how to respond to those questions and criticisms proved to be a distinct challenge.
"I wasn't here (when WLPD conducted a false arrest of Black Portlander Michael Fesser in 2017, resulting in a $600,000 city payout to settle the man's racial discrimination lawsuit). I didn't do that, but I'm head of the agency so it's mine. It's my responsibility now," Mahuna said.
News of the payout and details of West Linn officers' conduct during Fesser's arrest left the city reeling in February 2020. Residents expressed outrage, while city, county, state and federal officials called for an official investigation into the matter.
Since then, the city has worked to overcome its reputation for racism and cronyism at WLPD, launching a diversity, equity and inclusion audit of the city, forming a citizen panel to make suggestions for a police oversight board and hiring an independent firm to examine the city's handling of the Fesser arrest and subsequent lawsuit.
Mahuna was named interim chief in April 2020 when the city put former Chief Terry Kruger on leave for the duration of the independent investigation. The city fired Kruger in December 2020, shortly after the firm's investigative report was released. West Linn began recruiting for a new chief in 2021, and in November announced that Mahuna was hired on a permanent basis.
The announcement was met with mixed reactions from the community. Some residents were pleased with the city's decision and happy to allow Mahuna to continue the work he began as interim chief. Others thought an outside hire would give WLPD a fresh start.
Mahuna, who was born and raised on Maui and studied social work at Pacific University in Forest Grove, realized he wanted to be a cop when he went on a ride-along with PPB as part of a field experience credit for a sociology class.
"We didn't do anything super exciting," Mahuna said of the ride-along. "But just being there was an indescribable feeling."
The passion and adrenaline he felt during that day has never gone away, Mahuna said.
So, after graduating from Pacific, Mahuna applied to be an officer at PPB. The agency hired him in 1992. He became a sergeant in 2010, a lieutenant in 2015 and a captain in 2018. During his years at PPB, he spent time with multiple teams and divisions including the gang enforcement team, sex crimes unit, drugs and vice, and the Special Emergency Reaction Team (the bureau's equivalent of a SWAT team).
When Kruger applied for the WLPD chief job in 2018, he asked Mahuna if he wanted to come with him to work in West Linn, the new chief said.
When Kruger got the job, he showed Mahuna around town. Mahuna said right away he liked West Linn. He retired from PPB on Nov. 6, 2018 and was hired as a WLPD captain two days later.
Kruger knew Mahuna from PPB, where the two had served together on SERT. Over the past two decades the tactical team has come under scrutiny for alleged lewd traditions, hazing, discrimination and other misconduct.
One former member of SERT has twice sued the city of Portland for discrimination related to the team. Kruger and Michael Stradley, another officer who served at WLPD after his time in Portland, were among those the former SERT member named in their allegations.
In 2017, when Stradley was a lieutenant at WLPD, he used his contacts at PPB to get Portland officers to help with the false arrest of Fesser.
Liani Reyna, the former SERT officer who sued the city, said she worked with Kruger, Stradley and Mahuna at SERT in 2000.
"Stradley and Kruger are responsible for my complaint against the SERT team so I was not surprised of their involvement in the Michael Fesser scandal," she said in an email. "Members on SERT, including Mahuna, participated in sexually charged hazing practices which were demeaning to women, such as Mahuna simulating oral sex on a SERT sergeant while wearing a women's dress. It was this kind of conduct which created a hostile work environment on SERT."
Mahuna said he was a part of the incoming class of new SERT members that was hazed, and that the hazing practices stopped after his class.
"This was the year 2000: 21 years ago. I was the one this was being done to. I wasn't complaining. I did it because it was part of the on-boarding process. It was about building bonds and I participated in that willingly and I didn't tell anybody. It was what we did. It was what was done to us," Mahuna said. "It made me look silly and it was a humbling experience and there was a point to all of that."
The point to the hazing, Mahuna said, was to humble new members of the team.
"Whether or not I agree with it, that's what the process was at the time," Mahuna said. "I'm sure the team has come a long way since then and sometimes it takes a bad incident to make changes in law enforcement."
Asked whether Mahuna's time at SERT was a concern, City Manager Jerry Gabrielatos maintained his confidence in the chief, emphasizing the work he's done over the past year and a half as interim chief.
"Peter has led the department through its most challenging time — the Fesser matter, George Floyd's death and the pandemic," Gabrielatos said. "In addition to that, he played an integral role working with the Oversight Task Force and bargaining team, implemented recommendations from the OIR report, added a behavioral health unit, initiated the accreditation process and improved the complaint process. He brought in training from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Red Door Project. I believe these actions speak to his leadership ability."
Today, Mahuna said he still feels the same about West Linn as he did when Kruger first showed him around in 2018.
"Right away you get that sense that this is a quiet little town and everyone is really friendly. I was really drawn to it," Mahuna said.
Even during the city's toughest times, people are still friendly, he added.
With the word "interim" removed from his title, Mahuna said he is ready to move the department forward and rebuild connections with the community.
That rebuilding will require accountability.
"We all have bad days," Mahuna said, adding that in his three decades as a police officer he's never made a fatal mistake or had a scandal like the Fesser arrest.
Early on in his career, he said he learned to take ownership of his mistakes.
Rebuilding relationships with the community will also mean more interactions with the community. To do this, Mahuna noted he began working with a program called "Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers" where officers and community members can eat together and talk about whatever they'd like.
He also said he recently attended a meeting with Director of Community Services Doug Erickson, Behavioral Health Specialist Amber Hambrick and the leaders of West Linn's faith-based organizations.
Mahuna said he also plans to resume youth lunches, where officers eat with students from West Linn High School, in the summer. He also recently began "Coffee with the chief," where community members can sign up to have coffee with him and talk about whatever they'd like.
He hopes to start a similar program he'd call "Pupus with Peter." Pupus, he explained, are Hawaiian appetizers. Hosting Pupus with Peter in the evening, he said, would allow those who work during the day and don't have the chance to come to Coffee with the Chief a chance to meet and talk.
Mahuna also mentioned the importance of having citizens involved in the department's complaint process, noting that as a commanding officer at PPB he worked with the citizen panel that reviewed complaints against personnel.
While emphasizing his personal accountability, Mahuna also mentioned there are ways to systematically improve accountability measures for policing.
He noted the Oregon Legislature sent a "strong message" through policing legislation in 2020.
Unfortunately, he said, sometimes it takes a bad incident to spark change, noting that before George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, "there were changes that needed to be made in policing."
Mahuna said it's important for accountability and reform measures to come with thought, and to not just take money from the police department without having something in place to account for the lost services.
"There's room for other partners to play in this arena that police get pushed into — mental health, drug addictions and all this stuff," he said.
Mahuna added that although programs like Eugene's Cahoots (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) are great for their communities, they may not work in a city like West Linn, which doesn't have its own hospital or mental health resources necessary for such a program.
Mahuna said he looks forward to continually engaging with the community as the department moves forward.
"I'm doing the best that I can. I'm going to continue to do the best I can," he said. "I know right from wrong. Let me deal with the problems that we can deal with. Call me on my mistakes and I'll own them. Let me grow into it."
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