Mike Reese Didn’t Grow Up Dreaming He’d Be a Cop. But he’s the guy who just led Portland’s police force through its most “tumultuous” year in memory. We talk shootings, mental health, and Tasers—and how next year might be better.
It was the press conference where Mayor Sam Adams would take over as police commissioner—amid a low ebb in community-police relations, and after a nasty budget squabble with then-Chief Rosie Sizer—and make Reese the city’s top cop.
“This is a can-do police chief,” the mayor said at the time, “and I’m going to be a can-do police commissioner.”
That night, the pair would come together again, immediately put to the test, to answer for what was then the third officer-involved shooting of 2010.
Keaton Otis, 25, a mentally disturbed man, was killed in a messy shootout with officers from the bureau’s gang enforcement unit. They had decided to tail him because they said he looked suspicious—walking perilously close to racially profiling Otis. And in the scuffle after they stopped him, officials say, Otis shot one officer, and three others returned fire 32 times.
One year later, on an anniversary Reese hoped would just “fly under the radar,” he also had somewhere to be: Nashville—for what his spokesman described as a national gathering of police chiefs. And, in the wee hours as Thursday, May 12, turned to Friday, May 13, there also was some news on an issue that has bedeviled the bureau in recent months: Two suspects sought in the gang-related shooting of a 14-year-old outside Lloyd Center had been arrested after weeks of investigation. No one was shot.
But if Reese, 53, took over at a low point for the bureau—mired in mistrust over the James Chasse settlement, reckoning with a troubling surge in shootings, and facing layoffs—has anything changed?
Portland cops have fired their guns in the line of duty six more times since Reese’s first day, killing three men also battling mental illness and nearly killing a fourth. It’s been the largest spike for the bureau in years—since before officers were armed with Tasers and given training on crisis intervention.
In one incident in March, two cops were shot, one of them sent to the hospital with serious injuries, when a mentally ill man opened fire from his Southeast duplex. The man, Ralph Clyde Turner, was not shot. Last fall, Reese fired the officer who shot and killed Aaron Campbell, citing his history of poor judgment on the job, but then courted controversy a month later when he promoted the officer who shot Raymond Gwerder, seemingly overlooking a far more costly history of mistakes.
Reese knew, even if the mayor didn’t, that the FBI was helping a 19-year-old Somali American plot mass murder in Pioneer Courthouse Square—and now Portland’s tighter with the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Gang crime took over headlines last summer and led to new gun-control laws. And the budget? Reese found a way not only to avoid laying off cops, but also to hire more. But that’s only because Portland is suddenly drowning in cash.
The Mercury sat down with the chief earlier this month to talk about the year that was and the year that might be. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
MERCURY: Is every year like this? Is busy the right word?
MIKE REESE: It’s been tumultuous, actually, for the first year. Certainly the number of officer-involved shootings is higher than in the last few years, and if you combine that with the transition between chiefs, and the budget—the fact that we had to lay off 24 people last year and hold 31 sworn vacancies for six months—it’s been a monumental year.
How would you say you handled it? Rate yourself.
I would let other people rate me.
Okay then, here’s an easy one: What’s something good you’ve done this year?
[Long pause] I think trying to help the officers and the community understand the new dynamics around policing and that we’ve had a shift in what we do and who we deal with. Over the course of my career, it’s gone from traditional crime to where we’re dealing more and more with social disorder. It’s been so incremental over the last 25 years, particularly with the breakdown of services to people who are mentally ill, that we didn’t realize it was overwhelming us. This is a new dynamic.
But couldn’t you have done something sooner?
Absolutely. Our officers would have been better prepared and better trained to deal with the issues we’re facing now.
You didn’t realize this shift was coming before you became chief?
I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes and learned as I’ve gone on in the past year or so. But I guess I started to see it probably when I was Central Precinct commander. I started having conversations with social service partners and doing outreach.
Before we go any deeper, this is a good time to stop and talk about your background, how you got to be chief. Let’s have the basics.
I grew up in North Portland, but I moved around a lot as a kid. We were very poor, and my parents were divorced. I went to six different elementary schools before graduating from Roosevelt High School and then from Portland State, with a master’s in public administration. I’m married to a counselor at Lake Oswego High School. We have three daughters—and the oldest one just graduated from college a year ago. We live in Southwest.
You made your oldest daughter stand up during your City Club speech last month.
I was kind of joking. I said that as her father, I can say she’s looking for work. She’s still looking.
What do you do for fun—besides play the guitar?
My kids, the two younger ones, are in athletics so I go to a lot of basketball games. Lacrosse. Soccer. I coach basketball, and that takes up a lot of time. I also compete in triathlons.
I spotted you running down Willamette Boulevard last year, during the Portland Marathon.
I’ve done the Portland Marathon 10 times. I don’t specifically train for running events. I train for triathlons but I do half-marathons and marathons as part. This morning I got to work at 7 am and went for a nine-mile run. We had a good time.
How often do you play music?
We still get together. The band practices once a week.
Quick. What’s your favorite band? Song?
I love Carlos Santana. He’s probably my favorite guitar player, and “Black Magic Woman” is one of my favorite songs of all time.
You started working as a counselor at the Boys and Girls Club. How did that lead into law enforcement?
I was working at the Lents Boys and Girls Club and I was the person in charge of that facility. And our executive director was retiring, so I applied. The board of governors, they were very kind. They said, “God, Mike, we really love you, but you need a lot more experience. You should be the executive director in Salem or in Lebanon or in Boise.” But my family is here, and my daughter was young. So I started looking for a different profession. I saw an ad for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, applied—and it took seven months. During the course of it, I thought, well, I really like my job. I think I’ll just forget the law [enforcement] thing. And then they’d call me up two months later and tell me I was number one on the test, come take the physical. It went through a cycle. I’d think I didn’t want to do it, and then they’d call me. Finally they offered me the job, and I said okay.
And now you’re chief of police in Portland.
I didn’t start until I was 32. Most officers start when they’re 24 or 25.
Let’s talk about shootings. You’ve been consistent. Before taking over, you worried about mental health funding, and you’ve kept saying it while trying to explain all the shootings since then.
It’s very hard right now because the state and the county are making some difficult decisions about what to fund. Over the course of my career, we’ve seen the resources for mental health evaporate. They decided 30 years ago to deinstitutionalize people and build community-based treatment facilities, but they never built the other facilities. So you can’t walk in downtown Portland without coming across somebody who’s mentally ill. Almost all of the incidents last year where officers had to use their firearms involved people in some sort of mental health crisis. Not all of them were mentally ill but certainly some of them were responding to an emotional crisis.
What are you doing in the absence of those services?
We’re working with treatment providers and looking at the interaction between mentally ill people and police and where the system is breaking down. We’re telling officers—giving them information—about the new dynamic: Here’s what we are experiencing. Here are some options. Here are things you have to look for when you have someone who’s mentally ill and they’re abusing substances and have a weapon.
Some experts have criticized the bureau’s crisis training program, saying it’s best aimed at a specialized group of officers with the right temperament, not all officers. Are you considering changes?
We’ve gone down that road. It’s the right model. It works. Just yesterday, Central Precinct officers spent hours talking a person who was going to jump off of the Ross Island Bridge out of doing that. We’re having our hostage negotiation team be more involved. But going back to where we have just a few officers trained, I don’t think that’s a good model.
In explaining the recent shootings to community groups, you’ve said the majority of the decisions officers made were within policy. That means that some decisions were not. Should we expect further discipline?
Those cases are still going through the review and analysis process, so it would be premature for me to say that I foresee discipline coming out of those. As we’ve looked at those, with a snapshot review from the training division and from the strategic services division, officers used good tactics.
They used less lethal weapons when appropriate. They were faced with folks intent on harming the officers or the community who were armed with deadly weapons, and officers had to make difficult decisions
The incident with Ralph Turner, in which Officer Parek Singh was hospitalized, was resolved in a way that even critics of the bureau acknowledged was peaceful and professional. What worked?
We had two officers shot that day; one officer’s bulletproof vest protected him. That’s not a successful outcome for us, having two officers shot in an incident. Having said that, our officers reacted heroically and very professionally to a person who was trying to kill them.
You took flak from the Portland Police Association (PPA) when Officer Ron Frashour was fired. Is there still a rift with rank-and-file officers?
I have a good relationship with the leadership of the PPA. We’re going to disagree about labor and management issues sometimes, but we’re going to do it in a respectful and professional manner. [PPA President] Daryl Turner and I have the best interests of the bureau at heart… and the community at heart.
Promoting Leo Besner [the tactical unit officer who shot Raymond Gwerder in 2005, and who also has cost the city hundreds of thousands in legal costs in other use-of-force cases] caused outcry. At the promotion ceremony, you ripped “ubiquitous critics”? Were you courting that reaction?
With promotions, we look at a whole range of aspects: how people do in the promotional process, their history, and the position that’s available. I believe strongly in redemption. People are going to have bumps in the road, if you will. I’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes in my career. And when I have conversations with people about what I need to see from them to prepare themselves for that next step, and they do those things and they have made transformative changes, then I value that and I think they’re ready for promotion. I’m not going to make everybody happy. What I want is to be able to look in the mirror and say I did what I believe is right.
Some have compared Besner’s record to Frashour’s. In Frashour’s termination letter, you mentioned his “bumps in the road” to justify your decision.
It’s not fair to Sergeant Besner to characterize the Gwerder shooting as his responsibility. Certainly he was the person who fired the shot, but there was a monumental breakdown in communication, and the Portland Police Bureau realized that we had collective fault. We made some really dramatic changes, and to say that Leo Besner is solely responsible for what happened would be a mischaracterization of the events.
Let’s talk about resources. What’s the biggest crime-fighting challenge facing the bureau right now?
Other than the fact we’re dealing with so much social disorder: homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, what’s ticking up now is burglaries and auto theft. Burglars [are] exploiting the internet [to fence their wares], so we have to adjust. We put together a burglary task force identifying prolific burglars and also looking at how we can get to the fencing operations
Does the bureau have enough resources to do its job?
No. We’re constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul. When we created the burglary task force we took away precinct detectives, and neighborhood officers, and drug and vice division officers to put them at that mission. That means we don’t have as many detectives investigating other property crimes or neighborhood response officers responding to problem areas and locations.
The Illegal Drug Impact Areas in Old Town have been approved, but the district attorney’s office needs to do some work. What’s being done in the meantime?
We’re working with other criminal justice partners, the DA, and parole and probation, to hold people accountable. For the last year, because of budget cuts, the DA hasn’t been prosecuting drug crimes. Officers tell me they go to court and see people getting higher fines for speeding tickets than for possessing heroin. That doesn’t work, when you allow people to spiral down into addiction. It makes it much tougher for us to break that cycle. If we can interdict that behavior sooner, when they first start getting addicted and get them into treatment and housing, employment, we’re going to be a lot more successful. The criminal justice system has to be whole, and it has to work.
It emerged during the city council hearing on the Illegal Drug Impact Areas that there are empty beds in the city’s Service Coordination Team program. How can there be empty beds at a time of need?
We’ve lowered the threshold from when we started the program. We were looking at the chronic offenders, the people who are doing the most damage, stealing everything that’s not nailed down to support their addiction. Some of those folks were being arrested 30 times in three months. So they were cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. But the bar has dropped down to three or four arrests. The recidivism rate among that group has dropped dramatically. We also increased capacity because the program was successful. We got a federal grant to increase outpatient services, so now we’re working to identify people who may not be getting the number of arrests but we know they’ve got a drug problem.
The gun crime task force the bureau resurrected last year—was that the mayor’s big push, or was it yours?
The mayor asked for some ideas about how to attack the problem of people acquiring firearms and using them in a violent manner. I was the first city sergeant assigned to the Youth Guns Anti-Violence Task Force. We kind of put that model together. Due to resource issues, it got disbanded about three years ago. But I thought we were very effective. So we talked to the mayor: Here’s an option. The mayor liked it, so we put it back together.
People hear about targeted gun, gang, and drug crime efforts, and they worry about racial profiling.
When we look at criminal behavior, we’re blind. But when you look specifically at gang crime, the problem we’re having right now is you’ve got African American young men who are being killed, and the suspects in those crimes are African American young men. When we’re having conversations about our enforcement efforts, and why we’re looking at these gangs, that’s who is involved and that’s who is being victimized.
Let’s talk about Tasers—and the city’s Taser policy.
Do you want me to Taser you?
I volunteered. I wanted to. [The city attorney’s office told the police bureau no.] Have you ever Tasered anyone?
There was a city audit on Taser use last year. And some lawsuits reported on in the Oregonian. When should Tasers be used?
When someone’s engaged in aggressive physical resistance, or is likely to engage in it, it’s appropriate to use a Taser. Dave Woboril [a deputy city attorney] has talked to community groups about our Taser policy. We provide scenarios about where we use Tasers, and people thought we were very thoughtful and very judicious.
For example, you get a person in a stolen car, and we get into a pursuit. Maybe they stop the car and get out and take off running. Is it appropriate for us to Taser that person to keep them from getting into a neighborhood as they’re going over the fence? When we ask community groups, they say that’s a pretty good use of a Taser to stop that person from getting into my backyard. Or when someone balls up their fist and you can tell they’re ready for a fight—they want to assault an officer. Is that an inappropriate use of a Taser, as opposed to us going hands-on and punching the person.
Would running from an officer always be considered an act of active resistance?
We have to look at the situation. What threat does this person pose to the community? What’s the severity of the crime? What are your options? Are you there by yourself, or do you have four or five officers with you. It’s the totality of circumstances.
Quickly, on the Joint Terrorism Task Force. How detailed are the council’s annual reports going to be?
We’re working with the mayor right now, and deciding what information needs to be captured—providing as much detail as we can without compromising investigations or the identity of investigators who are working undercover.
To join a federal investigation, do you need the police commissioner’s permission? Or do you merely need to notify him?
The mayor and I will be on the same page as we move forward. He’s been very supportive of our involvement.
So you’re a boss now. And you’ve been a boss for a while. Do you miss anything about being on patrol?
When I go out and work shifts, I really feel like I’m missing my calling. That ability to be in the patrol car, out in a neighborhood helping people, it’s powerful.