MIKE MARSHMAN'S first memory in life is a bloody stump—the nasty product of sticking his tiny finger into a bicycle chain as a baby.
That injury has required Marshman to adapt to one of the requirements of police work: For a time, his lack of a full trigger finger forced him to use his middle finger to fire his service weapon. Then he switched his shooting hand altogether.
As the city’s new police chief—after serving 25 years here—Marshman’s looking to similarly adapt the Portland Police Bureau to a host of difficulties it’s facing, from being short dozens of officers to negotiating a complex and contentious agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) over past police abuses.
Marshman started his new job in dramatic fashion—and not just because his promotion came after former Police Chief Larry O’Dea shot one of his buddies on a hunting trip. Hours after being sworn in on June 27, Marshman cleaned house in the bureau’s top ranks, demoting three assistant chiefs, spurring a fourth to retire, and replacing them all with a handpicked command team.
Marshman’s since experienced the first test of his tenure: reports that he choked his 16-year-old former stepson during an altercation more than a decade ago. The incident hadn’t come to light when the Mercury sat down to talk with the new chief about his ideas for easing the police bureau’s ills on June 30.
Here’s what we talked about.
MERCURY: How long have you thought there needed to be sweeping change at the top of the Portland Police Bureau?
MIKE MARSHMAN: As you go higher in the ranks and you have more responsibility, I think it’s more common for people to go, “I’d do it this way” or “I’d do it that way.” We’re at a moment in time in policing in the United States where community engagement is paramount. It made me think I’d do things a little bit different. I felt over time a need to just kind of reset the organization. Not a restart, but kind of shaking out the cobwebs a little bit. A renewed focus on the [DOJ] agreement.
The mayor has long touted a change in culture in the police bureau, specifically regarding the DOJ settlement. What should people think about their police leadership when you, the guy who's been leading the bureau on DOJ reforms, think people at the top have to go?
I wouldn’t phrase it as “have to go.” I tried to honestly look at people’s skill sets. I’ve never said they’re not committed to the organization, because they are. I tried to make command changes that place people in spots where they can do even more. I think it’s going to take time for the public to see results. I don’t expect the public, overnight, to go, “Okay, I trust him.”
There are six months until Ted Wheeler takes office as mayor. Is there an assumption on your part that you’ll be vying to maintain this position when that happens?
Mayor-Elect Wheeler said he would do a national search. I did speak with him on Monday morning, and I said, “I would actually recommend you do.” My commitment to the organization and the city is I’m going to do this to the best of my ability, and do what’s best for the city of Portland. Under that guideline, why not do a national search? If I put my name in the hat and am fortunate enough to become chief after that process? Great. That said, if that process unfolds and someone’s more competent at doing the job than I am, that’s fine too. That’s good.
So do you know yet whether you’ll put your name in the hat?
I can say at this point I imagine I would.
You laid out three goals when you assumed the job: building community trust, reestablishing "internal legitimacy," and focusing on the DOJ settlement. I'm interested in the first two.
You get these academic terms—“procedural justice,” “internal legitimacy.” Procedural justice is essentially, in a nutshell, fairness. Treating people fairly regardless of the outcome. You need that inside of an organization as well. Obviously we’re a paramilitary hierarchical organization. The bureau members inside have to feel like they have that same voice—with each other and up and down command structures. You have to build that trust within the organization. If you don’t do that, how can I expect bureau members to do that outside the walls, too?
And that trust doesn't exist right now?
I wouldn’t go that far. You can always build upon it. I’ve been looking at internal communication over the years I’ve worked here. I think that’s one of the hardest things for anybody inside an organization to tackle. I’m asking already for help. How do you want me to communicate with you? I don’t have all the answers, but misinformation leads to lack of trust. So how do I communicate effectively to build trust?
There's an academic bent to the way you seem to look at policing. I wonder what actual law enforcement experiences you think of when you think about how your philosophy has been shaped.
Obviously part of our job is arresting folks who commit serious crimes and have to go to jail. I’ve arrested some folks who are quite violent in the past, and I know they have violent, violent histories. But the arrest process that I had with many individuals was smooth and seamless. At the end, when I took them to jail, they said, “Thanks for treating me with respect.” That’s that “procedural justice” piece in action. People just might not know the academic label.
Former Chief O'Dea had suggested moving members of some of the bureau's specialty units into routine patrol work to help with the staffing shortage. It didn't seem to get a great reaction, but the bureau is down dozens of officers. Where do you stand on that idea?
What I’m already starting to do is task people with looking at how many people are in the organization, and where exactly they are at. I’m [getting] some other city bureaus to help out in this. What is the optimal number of officers we need to have on the street taking radio calls? What are the specialty units, what’s their staffing level, and what are they actually doing? If we have to adjust staffing levels to have more officers on the street, what’s the best way to do that with little or no—probably little—impact to service delivery? I don’t have an answer for you of what it’s going to look like yet, but the mechanics of getting the right people in the room to have those detailed decisions is in process.
What's your take on the 48-hour rule [which gives cops who've shot somebody two days before they have to speak with internal affairs investigators], and how soon that needs to go or doesn't need to go?
To me, this is not a simple thing of the 48-hour rule. You can’t look at that as a stand-alone topic. I feel comfortable saying that when officers are in shootings, national studies show that they want to tell their stories, but you obviously have lawyers involved and Fifth Amendment processes. There are issues with community trust in that. What is the understanding of the community of the 48-hour rule—what it affords and doesn’t afford? That is one topic that needs to be addressed in terms of building community trust.
So you don't want to say yes or no on the rule?
I’m comfortable today saying we need to address it. We need to understand all the parties who are affected by it, and what they’d like to see.
You lost part of your right index finger. Was that from law enforcement?
No. I’m the youngest of three boys. I think I was the ripe old age of a year and a half. My oldest brother was putting his bicycle chain back on. So, you know, you put the bicycle upside-down, put on the chain, and spin it. I stuck my finger in the chain and sprocket. First memory of my life. When I was on the bomb squad it really made people think: “Either this guy’s been through a lot of stuff or he’s just really not very good.”
Isn't that your trigger finger?
Yes and no. I use my middle finger. I’m actually fully ambidextrous. I was in San Diego police before I came here and I shot right-handed. Here I shoot left-handed.
What else do you want to emphasize?
There’s been a lot of turmoil with Chief O’Dea’s investigation. I would say that the officers and the sergeants and the criminalists and detectives that go out to work every day, day in, day out, they are doing the things that we’ve talked about. They are treating people fairly, and doing procedural justice, though they might not know the technical names of it. They are really, truly short-staffed going to work day in, day out. I don’t want their work to get overshadowed, or have any sense of negativity impact them. They’re the ones taking radio calls. They’re the front line connecting with the community, and they do it very, very well.