Gresham’s Police Department builds trust

Chief Robin Sells focuses on breaking down social stigmas

Graphic by Prisma Flores.

Graphic by Prisma Flores.

Gresham’s top cop said she believes every personal encounter with police should have a positive impact on the lives of those involved –  but admits that doesn’t always happen, for a variety of reasons.

Gresham Police Chief Robin Sells spent the lunch hour on Tuesday at MHCC to discuss her department and its community involvement, and the serious challenges it faces.

Speaking in the Town & Gown Room, Sells said the GPD finds ways to be innovative. Officers make time to meet with community members, often one-on-one, in order to build trust. With Gresham’s rapidly changing demographics, the department also looks to mirror the community, within its own ranks, to better serve the public.

Limited resources

Too often, time and money are too short, however.

At about 110,000 residents, Gresham is the fourth-largest city in the state. There are a minimum of seven officers on duty at any given time, Sells said, but that’s not nearly enough, and each is stretched too thin.

“We are the second lowest per-capita-to-officer ratio in the state of Oregon,” she said. “As it stands now, our officers just go call to call to call and they don’t have time to do their proactive, self-initiated activity, because they’re constantly just responding to calls.”

Sells said she is currently understaffed by about seven officers. Upcoming retirements will complicate her efforts, she said.

“(I) try and get that word out, that we’re looking for diversity – I need more people that speak Spanish,” she said. “We look to the community and try and say, ‘Bring us your diversity, we want you,’ and we’re doing the best we can.”

Implementing more innovative police services is one challenge. Mirroring fast-changing community demographics is also difficult. Among 130 current officers (when Gresham is at full staffing), only six are female and only 12 speak Spanish, according to Sells. One reason is there is only one police academy for the entire state of Oregon. “I’m competing with Portland and (county) Sheriffs and everybody else just to get those spots, and sometimes there’s not enough spots for our people,” she said.

Sells said her department is about more than just law enforcement. “We really are police services, and that deals with everything from mental health issues to homeless issues, being out on the Springwater Trail, trying to keep you safe – those are nontraditional law enforcement functions.”

Sells said the department is innovative, including its Neighborhood Enforcement Team (NET) that spends time on larger issues.

“This team is able to take time out of their day and actually solve a problem, as opposed to just always answering calls for service,” she said. It is able to spend days or weeks on projects. Currently, the NET is working on “zombie homes,” working with city ordinances to put vacant, foreclosed homes on the sales market so they don’t attract criminal activity.

“We as an agency really went outside the box and tried to do something a little bit different,” she said about the NET.

Sells’s officers are wrestling with controversial immigration laws, she said. She acknowledged the lack of clarity on what laws actually say and how they will be implemented.

“Every month we’re sitting down with the Latino community and talking about what our role is with this new (federal) government,” she said. “I have to tell you that your local law enforcement is not ICE, and we are not immigration, we do not enforce immigration laws to the extent that the state of Oregon has a law that prohibits us from doing that.”

To build trust with the Latino community, officers attend meetings with the Latino Network, a youth support organization, and talk to attendees. “Those are the people that need to hear this to the point that they’re so used to us coming to their meetings,” said Sells. “They have come to trust us.

“We’re building that bond and that’s the message I keep telling them: Don’t be afraid (of us) because you will become a victim more often if you don’t stand up” when there’s been a crime, she said. “You will not get arrested because you’ve reported something.”

Becoming an officer

Sells shared with the MHCC audience the story of how she started in law enforcement.

When she was 17, she witnessed a little girl’s bike getting stolen in front of a store. Sells followed the thief in her Datsun station wagon until he jumped off the bike and she picked it up. She saw the thief getting into a truck, so she wrote down the license plate number.

When Sells returned to the store with the bike, the officer on duty was impressed that she recovered it and that she got the suspect’s information. “I practically wrote the report for him and he just kept going on and on that I was a hero,” she said.

Her origin story is used as a basis to drill the fact that, in law enforcement, “every contact is a chance to make a difference,” she said. “I tell the officers all the time – I think they get tired of me telling them this.”

What’s more, the police officer telling her she was a hero influenced her decision to become a cop. “I would never have considered law enforcement as a career,” she said. “He changed the course of my life.”

She would begin her police career as a records clerk, then as a dispatcher. “Although it’s a really good job you don’t get the closure you do as an officer,” she said. “You have people call in all the time and they complain – nobody ever calls you to tell you that it’s something good that’s happened.”

She entered a police academy when a former boyfriend told her she wasn’t cut out for the work. Not only did she graduate, but she was hired and spent 29 years with the Buena Park police in Southern California, working her way up to the rank of captain. She retired in 2014.

Her life changed again when her former colleague, Craig Junginger, then-police chief for Gresham, invited her to come join the force as deputy chief.

“I fell in love with the Gresham Police Department,” Sells said. When Junginger decided to retire, “the city asked me to stay on as interim, until a new chief could be chosen.” But many officers urged her to apply for the permanent job, and she beat out dozens of other candidates and was named chief last November, she said.

She’s happy she changed her mind, “and I am truly honored to have that position,” she said.

Building community trust

Sells said there is a lot of mistrust it comes to police.

“I can remember when I was a younger officer going into a courtroom to testify, there was no doubt that the jury and the judge were going to believe my testimony because I was a police officer. And nowadays, officers are second-guessed on a regular basis.”

Changing those negative attitudes towards police was something Sells decided to tackle in Gresham. Her department is involved in numerous community engagement activities. Those include “monthly listening sessions,” where people of various ethnic backgrounds who attend may come to talk to the police one-on-one.

“It gives the public the opportunity to talk to a police officer and be able to have those hard conversations,” such as racial inequality, which is a significant factor,” she said. People who are not Caucasian “tend to be charged more than a white person in our court system, and our court systems have the tendency to have the fines be higher and the disparity is not right,” she said.

Changing the fact that courts charge people with different ethnic backgrounds more is difficult because she is not in control of the court system, Sells added. “I do have   (a) responsibility to be empathetic to that person and try and make them feel important and see what we could do to change it,” she said.

Sells is on the executive board for a local public safety coordinating council and is involved with other disparities, she said.

“With somebody who has got a drug problem, maybe the right place for them is not jail. Maybe the right place is getting up some services so that they could get rid of their addiction and then I don’t have to put them in jail,” she said.

The problem with providing services to addicts and others in such situations is, again, funding. “Just like every other public agency, we’re scrambling for funds,” Sells said.

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