Tualatin police chief weighs in on calls for defunding law enforcement

Washington County

PMG FILE PHOTO – Tualatin Police Chief Bill Steele

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Like numerous other public agencies, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly changed how the Tualatin Police Department adapted to working under unique and unusual circumstances. It also focused attention on police departments throughout the country when some called for defunding police departments the police during Black Lives Matter protest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

On Nov. 15, Tualatin Police Chief Bill Steele recounted how his department handled and continue to handle calls for service during a pandemic that shut down the state in the middle of March 2020. The weeklong Zoom event, which featured a variety of first-responders, was put together by Kaia Gill and other members of the Tualatin Public Library’s Teen Library Committee.

“It became a huge issue for us in the police department because we couldn’t just stop what we were doing. A lot of businesses shut down, closing doors up for awhile and that really wasn’t an option for us and we continued to respond to calls for service,” Steele said during library’s series “Frontline Stories from the Pandemic.” “You know, people were still getting in traffic crashes. People were still, unfortunately, committing crimes. We had to still basically do the exact same job that we’ve been doing pre-pandemic.”

Regardless, Steele said his goal was to continue to keep his staff as safe as possible, allowing them to stay healthy and continue to do their jobs.

The chief said even a year and a half later, his department is still dealing with the fallout from the pandemic, adding that when the pandemic first started and much was still unknown, it was determined that having officers respond to all calls in person suddenly wasn’t the best option. He said like so many departments, they had to scramble to ensure officers had the necessary personal protective equipment to keep them safe.

“We had to make sure we have enough gloves and other protective gear. And so, there was a lot of changes like that that we had to get into place fairly quickly because when this happened, it happened really fast.”

Portland Tribune and its parent, Pamplin Media Group, are KOIN 6 news partners.

In response to a question about how officers felt, Steele said they know the dangers that come along with their job simply by showing up to work.

“There’s always that fear, you know, they could lose their life,” he said. “They could get injured. There’s a number of things that could happen to them.”

Like himself, Steele said all officers had families at home that they didn’t want to expose to the potentially life-threatening disease, making it a stressful time for all of those involved.

Asked about the nationwide protests in many cities during the pandemic where there was a call by some to defund police departments in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Steele said the situation was “very hard on our police officers because I truly feel that they’re doing their best every day to try to provide a safe community for everyone.” He added that the defunding call tended to lump all police officers together.

As a result, Steele said police really had to step up and start talking to people about what they do because not everyone deals with police on a daily basis.

“You could go your entire life with never having to call the police and that’s just great. But the people that do have to call, we want to, or have that desire to, (let them) know how we operate as a police department,” said Steele. “We want to share as much information as we can to educate people on why we do certain things and why we don’t do other things.”

He said the goal is to be transparent. However, when an incident as grievous as Floyd’s death occurs, everything is kicked into high gear because suddenly there is an increased demand for knowledge, to ensure the community that that’s not what’s going to happen in Tualatin.

Steele admitted that police deal with many situations where sending officers out may not be the best way to deal with a specific incident. He pointed out, however, that in dealing with the homeless, those in a mental health crisis or who have drug addictions, “our police officers have done an outstanding job dealing with those situations throughout the years, but there’s probably a better way of doing that.”

So if the opportunity existed to take funding from the police department and address issues like that better, you would not get an argument from most officers, he said.

“In some ways, we would support the defunding efforts as long as there’s a good plan in place to make sure that that those funds are being spent appropriately somewhere else to better handle a situation as I described and I’m not sure we’re ready to do that just quite yet,” said Steele.

Another question involved how Steele would differentiate Tualatin Police Department with other departments that might not have the same values or morals?

Steele said if officers aren’t doing their job correctly, they are held accountable “and we will part ways with them if we need to.” In the end, Steele said his staff needs to continue to do what they’ve been doing, which really comes down to how they treat the people they come in contact with.

“Everyone that we deal with, needs to be treated with respect and it doesn’t matter what they’ve done in their life,” said Steele. “We come into contact with a lot of people that have made poor decisions and that’s all the way from maybe just not getting along with somebody all the way up to they actually killed someone.”

Still, even if they make horrible decisions, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be treated with respect, saying everyone they deal with is someone’s brother, sister, mom, dad or relative.

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