CG Police Dept. main focus of council work session

Interim Police Chief Jeff Groth says he's optimistic but that work still needs to be done

Transforming the culture of the department

February 17 - The Cottage Grove City Council held a work session prior to the regular meeting on Monday, Feb. 13, where Interim Police Chief Jeff Groth gave a report on the state of the Cottage Grove Police Department. He envisions handing off an updated metaphorical playbook to the new Police Chief, with a transformed force that has learned from the mistakes made within the previous culture.

Councilor Jon Stinnett asked the Interim Chief what a realistic scenario looked like for new hires. Groth answered that there are three or four people, with one having completed backgrounds and moving forward. The Interim Chief also clarified the difference between hiring someone straight from the academy and officers recruited.

“I think we're making good headway,” Groth said optimistically. “But you have to understand, unfortunately, is when we have two officers in the police academy, right, so as soon as they graduate they finish their training and then bingo — that’s a boost. But when we recruit officers, you're looking at a year, best case scenario, before they're pushing a police car by themselves.”

Groth added that if the department can be competitive with lateral officers that are already certified, it could cut the time down to potentially six to 10 months. 

“Because they already know how to do the job, we don't have to send them to the academy,” said Groth. “But again, we have to be competitive to get those folks in the door.”

Councilor Stinnett also asked Groth to give the council a broader definition on what he believed a transformation in the department's culture means. “The culture was unhealthy. It allowed for things culturally in the department that it shouldn't have allowed for, and it didn't promote and encourage the things that it should be encouraging," said Groth "I think that's the simplest way for me to put that.” 

Groth acknowledged that the term “unhealthy” was the best description he could give to the police force culture within its employees, which has seen many changes over the last six months and has, unfortunately, seen this in other departments as well. “It's unpleasant. Nobody likes it, but Cottage Grove isn't going through things that other agencies haven't gone through,” Groth assured the council. “It reaches a point where [problems within the force’s culture] have to be addressed and it makes itself known.” 

Mental health training

Councilor Chalice Savage asked Interim Chief Groth to talk more about any education and understanding that police officers are receiving to deal with calls that require training for people suffering from mental illness. Groth responded, “We're working closely with some local practitioners and now South Lane Mental health to develop some kind of response team or response component.”

Several months ago, outreach from the community came to Groth as he was also looking for local partnerships. From there, a grassroots program began. Groth discovered that South Lane Mental Health was actually trying to put something together, “And so, then we transitioned and are focusing on that, because we really need to have something that's going to help our first responders deal with people that are in a mental health crisis,” Groth said.

Councilor Mike Fleck took a moment to reflect on a “tough year” for the CG police. However, he noted the professionalism and stability officers have offered in the few occurrences he’s witnessed. Fleck said he is still concerned that a “revolving door” of officers in the field may have trouble recognizing ties within the community that should be strengthened with trust instead of a paycheck.

“Cottage Grove is a great community. So, it offers a lot in its police department that you don't get in a bigger police department,” Groth said. “And we actually have quite a few opportunities when we're fully staffed. But nonetheless, we do need to remain competitive.” 

The morale of the current police force

Councilor Alex Dreher asked, “How would you categorize the morale of the current staff as we're going through these organizational changes?”

“The morale is pretty good.” Groth remarked, “Obviously, there's a lot of work that needs to be done, meaning physically people are working hard and a lot of hours. But it's important to note that I think [that] the atmosphere is a lot better today than it was on August 2, the first time I walked into the building. So that tells me that we're headed in the right direction.” 

Councilor Stinnett asked if there was a specific reason behind the vacancies throughout policing as a vocation and how Cottage Grove can recruit quality officers in that environment. “There's been a lot of spotlighting criticism on policing, some of it very much deserved and very needed.” Groth admitted, “I think people [who are] potential candidates need to think about that and say, ‘Do I want to be in that dangerous position?’ We have to promote the benefits of public service because, frankly, that's what this is about. It's about people. It's about public service. And we have to continue to promote that.

“What can we do to make it an attractive position?” Groth asked. “Again, it's not just throwing money at it. That isn't gonna solve the problem. But I think it's a part of it that needs to be looked at. So, I think that's how we recruit and, frankly, we have some benefits in Cottage Grove. This is a great place with a lot of potential to work for.”

Groth noted that, although police retention has only been an issue in Cottage Grove until recently, it is not a problem unique to the city. “We're in transition, right? So, we have to fight through that. We have to continue to let people know that this is a great place to come to work. As I said, we have people in the process [currently], so we're getting that message out. But that's what we need to do.”

Leveraging community events and dialogue

Councilor Greg Ervin, who sat in as Council President while Mayor Candace Solesbee was absent from the meeting, asked a series of questions on what the town is dealing with living near the I-5 corridor, trends in mental health, impacts of measures passed, and other specifics so as to get a better assessment of the landscape.

Groth replied that “The city very graciously allows me to be here three days a week. That was an important piece for me to want to be able to do this. So as a result, I'm not as available and so my interactions with the citizen members and business members have kind of been as necessary.”

The interim chief said he would be the first to admit that he has not necessarily looked for those opportunities. With his limited time, Groth has arranged with the city manager to keep his focus on internal matters for now. “I feel like that's really where I need to spend my time and spend the investment that you all are making in this process”

And finally, Councilor Ervin asked what roles are currently represented at the police department, considering one dispatcher and officers were recently placed on administrative leave. 

Groth explained that the department has an interim chief and interim captain, an officer that's been set up as an interim sergeant, a total of seven police officers, one detective, two part-time community service officers (CSO’s), four dispatchers, a records technician focusing on records in, a second records position that focuses on property evidence, and a part-time peer court coordinator that's also assisting with administrative duties.

Highlights from the regular meeting

  • During the regular meeting, newly appointed City Councilor At Large, Alex Dreher was sworn in.
  • Public comment included a statement from Judd VanGorder of the Cottage Grove Carousel, who is seeking help for the nonprofit in finding a long-term placement of the vintage carousel, now appraised at $450,000K — a 900 percent increase in value since restoration on the attraction began.
  • Staff received, and will process, a liquor license application for Covered Bridge Brewery to expand the full on-premise license to include a winery license from the OLCC.
  • The council adopted a resolution requesting the Board of Commissioners of Lane County to surrender the jurisdiction of 900 linear feet of South 6th Street into the incorporated city limits of Cottage Grove. The purpose of the annexation is to support the redevelopment of Hillcrest Market by creating a contiguous connection to the City and allowing annexation of the parcel. It has been recommended that the city adopt the resolution and that the council hold the first vote on the ordinance until Feb. 27, for a second vote, all councilors were unanimously in favor of both.
  • A tax foreclosed property was brought to Council to support a request to transfer the property at 1138 Thayer from Lane County to the City for the purpose of low-income housing and authorize the City Manager to pursue the transfer, remove the structure, and seek partners to develop low-income housing on the site. After some discussion on the logistics of the transfer, including application and transfer costs assured to be around $800, the council voted unanimously in favor of the acquisition.
  • Finance Director Roberta Likens gave an annual, mid-year financial grade report presentation for the City’s fiscal year July 1, 2022-June 30, 2023. The report consists of revenues and expenditures compared to the adopted budget. Staff use reasonable deductions to apply grades, indicated on a city memo with the use of a traffic light graphic, which is recommended that the council reviews and ask for clarification if needed. The report notes that all funds are meeting or exceeding expectations, except for three, which are the Street Fund, Industrial Park Fund, and the Building inspection fund — all which are graded ”under supervision.”