Photos by Ashley Anderson

LARRY O'DEA, Portland's latest police chief, is a precious gem in the never-good-enough pocket universe where policing meets politics.

He's a cop's cop, who's mussed his uniform working some of the Portland Police Bureau's specialty details—the bureau's tactical and gang teams—at a rough time in the fight to quell a surge of violence in North and Northeast Portland's African American communities. He's earned medals. He's shot and been shot at.

And yet after nearly 30 years in the Portland bureau, that same officer—maybe improbably, maybe not—has also won the hearts of city hall and certain community groups with a reputation as a force for change.

O'Dea, surviving as an assistant chief under both of his immediate predecessors, was a quiet power while the bureau tackled use-of-force reforms as part of the city's deal with the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Before that, he'd made it his mission to change the bureau's relationship with Portland's minority communities—getting officers to face up to their own biases.

Which is why it wasn't all that surprising when O'Dea, back in October, emerged as Mayor Charlie Hales' decisive choice to replace the retiring chief Hales had inherited, Mike Reese.

O'Dea's public swearing in is planned for Thursday, January 8, but he's already put his mark on the office. In December, he announced plans to add a fourth assistant chief to his office—filling it with Commander Kevin Modica, one of the bureau's most senior African American leaders.

The Mercury sat down with O'Dea just before that announcement to talk about his approach to the job, and especially his promise to rebuild the bureau's damaged relationship with the city's black community.


MERCURY: You were a rookie officer almost 30 years ago. The bureau you're taking over, and the world around it, both look a lot different than they did back then. What's changed the most?

LARRY O'DEA: I got hired in the mid-1980s, right after we'd started to restore the drugs and vice division. That was when we started having an influx of California-style gang members. So we really started hitting the height of gun violence in the next several years, in '87 and '88—it really peaked in '89. Those years were really some of the most violent in Portland.

I was assigned to the original gang team, and the community expectations were narrow: stop the violence, stop people dying, and get the guns off the street. Our approach and philosophy were very enforcement oriented. But if you fast forward to now, 29 years later, we're really at a 40-year low in violent crime. And an enforcement-based philosophy is not what the community needs. That approach in current times can hurt or damage your legitimacy with the community.

You've also got a mental health system that has fallen apart, where police are the first responders for people who are having a behavioral crisis. And the training reflects that. When I went through the basic academy, it was eight weeks long. Now it's 16 weeks. And the advanced academies are another 12 weeks. That's reflective of everything that officers now need to learn and know. The issues they face are well outside the bounds of "is this a crime or not?" It's not a crime for someone to stand on the corner and scream because they're mentally ill. But that will generate calls because people are afraid, and there's an expectation that somebody—somebody—will come to help.

And is that what we really want? Do you want police to have to handcuff people and lock them in a car and transport them for help? Or are there better ways we can do that?

Are different kinds of people pursuing police work now that the job has changed, and do you see any changes to the bureau's culture because of that shift?

The people who come to the table seem to be bringing a lot more than in my era. I look at this crew, and talk to them, and wonder frankly whether I would even be hired in this day and age. You have people with advanced degrees and multiple languages. Two of the people [in a current crop of recruits] come from the behavioral health field. We have teachers.

When you raise questions about "legitimacy," that's interesting. Because that's something that's come up in police accountability protests here and nationwide. What are you hearing from the people who are out on the streets?

The big message is that our country has been challenged by how race interacts with all our major institutions. Everywhere there's disparate impacts. It's not just the police. The police are a part of that. The police are also always the face of that. I'm hearing loud and clear that it's time for our major institutions to look at how race impacts what we do and to make some changes.

Do you know what those changes might look like?

These conversations predate the Ferguson verdict. It's stuff I've been thinking on for a long time, ever since I started working on equity issues for the bureau. My top priority is for the police to build trusting relationships in all parts of the community. The second—and very much related—is to continue to diversify the bureau and its leadership.

Anybody in the community should be able to look into the police bureau at any level and see something familiar and a similar culture. That can open some doors in trust and communication. Internally, that will cause the rest of us, as a result of that start, to think and act differently and have richer conversations, which leads to better practices and policy.

Command staff and sergeants have all had intensive training on racial bias, a regimen that calls for having honest discussions with their peers. Is that going to be translated to the rank and file?

It absolutely is. We'd had some well-intentioned but poorly executed efforts at having speakers come in during in-service training, and they weren't structured for success. Officers, myself included, felt more defensive at the end of that.

[The revised training] starts off with the history of your country so people understand the backdrop of race and implicit bias. And then there's the history of the profession [of law enforcement]. And it works its way closer and closer. Folks mostly think this is something from the 1960s—not realizing this is still stuff from every day that we need to be aware of.

The trainings were structured for particular ranks. When the chief's office was going through it, they asked what would you do differently? At that level, you're thinking policy. Hiring.

As a sergeant, how might you handle a roll call comment? How might you handle an upset person in certain parts of the community knowing this history now?

Now it's time to modify this for the officers. But we've pretty much used up our volunteers' time—all of us with full-time jobs. So now we need someone full time. That was the position I was able to get in the budget last year: the equity and diversity program manager. That person will directly report to me.

They'll work on the awareness and education training for our officers. Then they'll be able to go anywhere in the bureau [to address equity issues]: They can go to the training division and look at our lesson plans. Or personnel and ask how are we hiring and recruiting people? How do we promote and fill specialty units? It's unheard of in police departments.

One protester, a young man of color, said something fairly dispiriting recently, that even with diversity hiring and other ongoing reform efforts, he's still not sure the bureau's culture would change enough for some of the people he knows to feel comfortable joining up. Can the equity manager's work change that?

It will help with that. Diversity is just one component of equity. We have to look across the board.

How about the bureau's traffic stops data? We're still in a place where people of color are stopped or pulled over at a rate that's disproportionate to their percentage of the city's population.

Very much so.

And searches for contraband also are disproportionate, in that people of color who are stopped are less likely to have drugs or weapons. Will the reforms you've discussed affect that?

It absolutely will impact that. And here's how: As a whole, my profession wants to justify the stops data instead of looking at real strategies on how we can impact that data.

Look at it like a three-legged stool. One leg is all of our internal efforts and training, understanding implicit bias and understanding institutional racism. The second is having that well-educated workforce being diverse, with diverse leadership.

And the third leg, which is critical, is coming at the work from a relationship-based philosophy instead of an old-school enforcement way—like a drug-dealing complaint at an intersection, where I might grab two other officers and we'll stop everything that moves. Eventually we'll find the person with the drugs, but at the cost of stopping a lot of people who aren't involved and losing that trust. You're impacting an already low-crime number at the expense of more legitimacy.

If you come at this the other way, the officers are going to go out there, park their car, start talking to homeowners and business owners, and they're going to get accurate information. The people they end up stopping, it'll be based on having those relationships. "Yeah, that's little Johnny. He sells dope every day from 2:30 to 3:30 pm. His mom comes home at 4 pm, and he's never out there after 4 pm." That's who you want to be talking to.

You're going to be able to do your job, impacting that crime, in a way that builds trust.

What about the bureau's response to recent protests, in terms of enforcement? I'd never seen flash-bang grenades or the threat of mass arrests (AKA "kettling") before in my time covering protests here. Is the city getting tougher?

Those have always been options. And I've been a part of supervising protests or overseeing that for many, many years.

After the 2003 antiwar protests, that's when you really started seeing our approach start to change. We refocused on the realization that one of our most important priorities is supporting free speech and free expression and protest, but in a way that minimizes injury or serious injury and property damage.

We have specially trained crowd-control incident commanders. Their training is such that they know that even putting out a unit like the rapid response team [RRT] in their protective safety gear... even having that unit being seen... they realize that escalation.

But there are some things that are going to frankly be off limits. We're not going to have people on the highways, we're not going to let them take over bridges, and we're not going to let them impact major transportation systems. That's part of balancing free speech and peaceable assembly without infringing too far on other people's rights.

The bureau's been hammered with complaints over Chief Mike Reese's decision last summer to sign a legal settlement scrubbing years-old discipline for Captain Mark Kruger over his Nazi Germany-era shrine in a public park. Did you agree with that decision?

I'm the operations branch chief. I don't have a role in the settlement of lawsuits. That's the city attorney who has the lead on that. If you're a bureau director and your city attorney is giving you strong advice, that's something you want to listen to.

But you're the client. You still get to make the decision to sign, good or bad.

For however briefly you might be able to do that.

You played a large role in the crafting of federal reforms and you have a reputation as a change agent. But you're also beloved, I've heard, by the rank and file. Does that balance come naturally? Or is it consciously crafted?

I've been lucky to have a lot of different assignments and also to have worked in two different eras of policing. I've been a very consistent person. I've been in the chief's office through the last three chiefs, and that's unheard of here. Part of what helps is just being very consistent and very honest, having straightforward conversations with folks.

What you said about your longevity in the chief's office is almost an understatement. The bureau, especially its upper ranks, have been described as cliquey. How have you navigated all the changes at the top?

That might be more of a question for past chiefs [laughs]. In fact, I had lunch with [former] Chief [Derrick] Foxworth today. They've all been mentors for me. They've all been partners in this work. And I have good relationships with them.

Do you remember where you were when the mayor offered you the job of police chief?

We started off with a three-hour conversation about the bureau and where I thought it needed to be. We had another conversation some weeks later. He had done some follow-up in the community and talked to community folks who were familiar with my work, and then he offered me the job.

Over the years, I'd always heard little snippets about tension or disagreements between Chief Reese and the mayor. And maybe the media always made too much of that, but it says something that you're the chief the mayor's chosen. Do you think you'll have a better relationship?

We're all unique individuals. Part of my style is direct communication. It's saying what I believe needs to happen, not what I think different bosses might want to hear. There's never any doubt what's going on or what I think about things. My style is very direct and very collaborative.

You regularly sit on the Police Review Board, which advises police chiefs on discipline cases and whether cops should be punished or not. Have you ever participated in votes on that board and then disagreed with the way the chief ultimately ruled? How do you feel that process treats officers?

What I've really appreciated about the review board, where I gain the most insight, is hearing from the peer officers in those cases and hearing from citizen members.

As far as agreeing or disagreeing, my wife and I have been together 34 years, and occasionally she gets it wrong and doesn't agree with me. You draw on your whole experience, my life and my job here. Discipline decisions are by far the hardest things to do. There are three audiences you have to think about: my internal audience, the sworn and non-sworn members; the community; and the mayor and the city commissioners. I have to think about what each of these groups is expecting and thinking. But at the end of the day, I need to choose the right thing here. Sometimes those choices can be very, very painful. These different audiences may be looking for very different things.

The mayor said something in city council recently about discipline and dismissals increasing on his watch. Does that square with what you're seeing?

I didn't hear that comment. But what I will continue to do is look at every case and put in the thought and effort that each requires. When there's a decision by my boss—the police commissioner, who has the final say on discipline—one of the things I appreciate, and that we've talked about, is there may be decisions one way or the other and it needs to be okay if we're in disagreement. I have a role to look at all of these things very thoughtfully and give him my best recommendation—whether it's something he wants to hear or something he doesn't want to hear. Then I understand it's his role to have the final say. I'm not doing my job justice unless I'm being honest with him.

You've been involved in a shooting, which was ruled justified. You've personally gone through what other officers who've been investigated over deadly force have gone through. How will that shape your approach to discipline?

I was hired at the height of violent crime. I've gotten 11 medals over the years. I've worked in a lot of specialty units. I've also been shot. It gives me a good perspective.

If I'm looking back at when I was brand new or when I was involved in a force incident, as an officer I liked to be able to look to my chief's office and see people with that kind of experience. I haven't spent my career avoiding police work. That helps to give me some trust and legitimacy with some folks when I'm talking about community policing and equity issues. I've had some pretty intense assignments.

Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to take a leadership role in equity issues? I can't tell if it's likely or unlikely for someone who's done heavier police work to emerge as that kind of leader.

It's not a "suddenly." Having an understanding or interest or focus on equity is not something new to me. It's something I've been working on for much of my career. In the early days, I said, "You know, we really have to bring persons of color into this gang team unit." But you have much different influence as an officer than you do as an assistant chief, where I'm able to say, "No, we are going to do this training. This is what our profession needs to be successful." And now, being in the chief's chair—I'll be able to have a person who reports directly to me, who will have that access to go anywhere in the bureau and help us do better. It's not a matter of changing. It's a matter of having more influence.

How's your relationship with Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association (PPA)? You once raised concerns about the PPA maybe putting pressure on witnesses in the arbitration hearing that led to Ron Frashour being reinstated after he was fired for fatally shooting Aaron Campbell.

I have tremendous respect for Daryl. I've seen him do some amazing things, as a man and a person, that people aren't aware of. Things that are so thoughtful and so caring, it just about brings a tear to your eye. Part of it is the roles we're in during certain situations. He's got to protect his membership. And if my decision in a discipline case is on the other side of that? There's a little bit of an adversarial nature there. I'm confident we'll be able to move forward in a productive way. I've known him for a long, long time.

Were you working the streets together?

We were always working at different ends of things. But one of things I've done as an assistant chief was work a shift a month. And he'd always been a downtown guy, so one of the times when I went out, it was on a shift with him.

Not every single crime number is ticking down. As the city's finances not only recover, but grow stronger, will you be asking for more reinvestment in the bureau?

The direction for this year's budget was "don't ask for anything and don't expect anything, but don't expect any cuts. If you want to do something different, figure it out within existing resources." But we're looking at a couple of things.

Last year, we had an outside organization come in and look at our staffing, and they're really close [to completion]. We're going get their study and fix it within this budget. It's going to influence future discussions around how the police bureau is shaped.

Is the bureau about the size it needs to be?

We're close. There's a few more positions we need. We're looking not just at crime numbers, but the DOJ agreement. That's something we cannot fail in. We know we need analysts.

There are other functions we're not able to do at all, or to the degree to which I'd like, when we look at fraud investigations or computer crimes. But there are competing needs in the city, lots of discussions on streets and infrastructure and parks. There are plenty of other resources we could use to do other things, but I also need to be sensitive about how those priorities stack up against all the bureaus whose needs are just as legitimate.

Most chiefs only last a few years. How long do you want to do this job?

It's less of a matter of how long than the stuff I hope to get done.