(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part look at how the national conversation over law enforcement reform is being discussed by members of the Cottage Grove Police Department, and how each community is addressing the unique challenges they may face.)
While the nation is reeling from political division, a public health crisis and widespread protests, a growing call to “defund the police” has entered the public conversation, challenging the models of law enforcement departments throughout the country.
This demand for defunding has ranged in messaging from diverting police funding to community projects to the full abolition or dismantling of police departments in an effort to curtail police violence.
Meanwhile, others in the movement have focused energies on less radical change such as reforming police departments through policy changes or establishing crisis response teams to ease officers’ burdens.
As the populace gropes through this somewhat undiscovered territory for answers, the diversity of the law enforcement landscape is making one thing clear: any calls for change cannot be fashioned as a one-size-fits-all approach.
As of July 1, the Cottage Grove Police Department (CGPD) will employ a total of 18 sworn officers and the department is appropriated about $3 million next fiscal year for police operations.
Comparatively, Eugene Police Department employs nearly 200 officers and operates on a budget of about $68 million.
Despite the vast personnel and funding differences between them, Cottage Grove Police Chief Scott Shepherd sees The Grove as having the kind of advantage over bigger departments that comes naturally with small-town communities.
“Their relationship with their citizens is much different from what I perceive ours is,” he said. “We have an ability to interact and communicate with citizens on a much more personal and intimate level.”
Though the department has taken to handling more situations by phone if possible amid the public health crisis, Shepherd has maintained his open-door policy and tries to keep the department en-gaged with the community.
“Our tack has always been, if a citizen of Cottage Grove asks for a police officer, they’re going to get one,” he said, adding that citizens of larger cities cannot always expect such service.
Predictably, Cottage Grove’s size also sets it apart from larger cities in numbers of police-involved incidents.
In Shepherd’s 25 years with the department, he said there have been no confirmed reports of excessive force and only one case where weapons were discharged in the line of duty.
The case in question took place Sept. 20, 2014, when a male individual in need of counseling left his group home armed with a knife.
With three officers on scene, the man was reported to be non-compliant and charged at the officers. Two officers stopped the subject by firing rounds into the man’s leg or foot, after which he was treated, charged and released back to the group home.
No officers were hurt and the subject reportedly recovered.
Though Shepherd himself said he has “taken [his gun] out more times than I can count,” he attributes the police department’s lack of incidents to the its adherence to policy.
“I think that is generally the theme of how we do business,” he said.
Policy at Work
Demands for policy shifts have had a lot of currency in the national debate on law enforcement reform. Proposed solutions have included calls for demilitarization, requiring body cameras, improved training and establishing community oversight committees.
Though rewriting policy to achieve meaningful change may seem a daunting task for some departments, Cottage Grove seems to have been ahead of the curve.
For the past 14 years, the CGPD has been using a policy manual designed and drafted by Lexipol, a private company which provides policy manuals, training bulletins and consulting services to law enforcement agencies, fire departments and other public safety departments.
This has included the department’s use of force policy, a document which finds overlap with many of the requests coming from campaigns seeking to address police violence.
One campaign in particular has achieved a fair amount of popularity.
Prompted by the protests against police shootings of civilians in Missouri, New York, Baltimore and elsewhere, an activist movement called Campaign Zero emerged in 2015 with proposals to end the deaths and excessive force resulting from police encounters.
The campaign’s solutions focus on limiting police interventions, improving community interactions and ensuring accountability.
The hashtag for the campaign, #8CantWait, began trending on social media after the killing of George Floyd in May and, though the project has received widespread endorsement, others have criticized it for lacking evidence or not addressing root problems in law enforcement.
The project proposes eight policy changes police departments could make to curtail police violence: banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring a warning before shooting, duty to intervene, banning shooting at moving vehicles, requiring comprehensive reporting, requiring de-escalation, requiring, a use of force continuum and requiring exhausting all alternatives before shooting.
The first six of these policies are either included under the CGPD’s use-of-force policy or part of mandatory officer training. The last two, however, are not specifically addressed.
This is partially, Shepherd said, because they are not always feasible.
While a use-of-force continuum used to be part of policy, “It’s morphed into force examples,” he said, explaining that these days officer reactions depend more on threat levels.
Shepherd worries that a codified continuum can get officers stuck on the steps rather than reacting and adapting to each circumstance.
“A verbal argument between a guy and his wife is different from two guys swinging pool cues at each other,” he said, adding that a requirement to exhaust all alternatives before shooting is unrealistic considering the nature of unpredictable circumstances.
“It’s assuming that situations are static,” he said.
Still, de-escalation is baked into officer interactions and is required training, both in academy and in achieving certification.
“So it’s already part of being an officer,” said Shepherd. “We don’t go in to ramp things up, we go in to calm things down.”
In addition to developing the department’s manual, Lexipol offers the CGPD daily training bulletins — 15-minute exercises quizzing officers on policies as procedures, which is considered part of yearly training hours and helps officers stay keen on following good instincts.
“We hire people and give them guns because we trust them to make decisions in a logical manner, not necessarily a step-by-step manner,” Shepherd said.
Cottage Grove’s low incident rate may be due in part to the effective use of these policies and training. Shepherd recounted several cases which could have ended in deadly force if not for officers’ decisions to de-escalate.
In one case in 2016, a suicidal subject was reported underneath an I-5 overpass. The man had cut himself with glass and told arriving officers to shoot him.
He then approached the officers, pulling a black object out of his back pocket.
Fortunately, the object was quickly determined by officers to be a phone despite the ambiguity.
“It takes tremendous restraint to be able to do that,” said Shepherd.
Another case involved a road rage incident on I-5 where a subject had stopped his car and was brandishing a gun on the highway. When officers arrived, the subject was commanded to drop the gun, but he raised it to officers instead.
One officer attempted to fire, but his gun malfunctioned and did not discharge. As the officer quickly cleared the chamber and loaded another round, the subject, seeing he had narrowly escaped death, threw his gun away and was apprehended.
Another incident occurred in the middle of the night when a bicyclist was stopped by an officer for lacking proper equipment. When the rider was found to have a warrant out for his arrest, he suddenly reached into his pocket and a wrestling match between the subject and officer ensued.
An attempt to use a Taser gun failed when it did not penetrate the subject’s thick clothing and the subject at one point in the fight pointed a gun at the officer’s face.
The officer managed to point the subject’s arm away and the gun fired without harming anyone.
The brawl ended up with the subject on the ground, but biting into the officer’s hand and no amount of force seemed to make the subject to let go. Though the officer’s free hand had access to a firearm, the officer chose to rip his hand away and physically overwhelm the subject instead, avoiding a lethal solution.
In a final case, a male was reported standing in the center of an apartment complex pointing a pistol at residents. When officers arrived and issued orders, the man did not comply. Instead, he smiled and started walking toward officers with the pistol in a low ready position.
Officers were able to de-escalate the situation and the subject eventually threw his gun away, commenting that he was disappointed because he wanted to commit “suicide by cop.”
Such examples may point to the effectiveness of establishing clear policies and effective training.
Regardless of a department’s performance, however, advocates of law enforcement reform are ardent about the need to demilitarize the police.
The CGPD currently has two “Up-Armored” Humvees with ballistic glass and panels.
“Our reason for using [them] would be an active shooter situation,” said Shepherd, “or other rescue operations if there’s a shooting.”
The department’s older model was deployed only once for rescue purposes when a Sheriff’s deputy was shot during an incident at Cottage Grove Lake, though it was not needed for the extraction.
Though they have only used them in training, the CGPD also keeps a stock of 18 rifles, six of which are M4 carbines obtained through state surplus.
Shepherd feels such armaments are important to keep in stock as a contingency plan.
“You just don’t know what kind of firepower is out there,” he said.
Holding officers accountable for misbehavior or criminal activity is also a concern in the national conversation.
In Cottage Grove, almost all investigations are done internally as cases generally involve policy violations or citizen complaints and do not rise to severity of requiring a third party.
Cases first go through Captain Conrad Gagner.
“We take all complaints, even from anonymous sources,” he said.
If a complaint comes in involving staff, Gagner considers the evidence in context of the department’s Standards of Conduct.
Four dispositions may result: unfounded (alleged misconduct did not occur or involve members), exonerated (misconduct occurred, but justified), non-sustained (not enough evidence) or sustained (misconduct occurred).
If a case rises to the level of a crime, the department stops their investigation and sends it to the Oregon State Police.
Such a situation took place about five years ago when former Cottage Grove police officer Phillip Beach was caught stealing methamphetamine from the department’s evidence locker.
After being tipped off by an evidence property clerk, CGPD placed two hidden cameras in the evidence locker and recorded Beach removing the drug.
The case was passed along to the state police and, last August, Beach pleaded guilty to the theft.
A full audit of the department followed as well as tightening down training and procedure regarding handling evidence.
Such situations are the exception rather than the rule, however.
“Fortunately, internal matters don’t result too often in criminal cases,” said Gagner.
In fact, Gagner said most cases are brought up internally to address possible policy violations based on reviews police reports.
And from the citizenry so far this year, Gagner recalled one formal citizen complaint about a rude officer.
In comparing Cottage Grove’s incidents to the tumult rocking the national discourse on law enforcement, Gagner sees a disconnect.
“Those problems aren’t a problem here,” he said. “But the solutions are being applied nationwide.”
However, he added, “I think it’s healthy to take issues that happen anywhere and apply them to our policy and see where we stand.”
Ultimately, Gagner said he takes officer misconduct seriously and prioritizes applying department policy without bias.
“I’m completely objective in all the investigations I do,” he said. “If it looks bad for the department or if it looks good for the department — it doesn’t matter to me. I’m interested in getting at the truth because I want officers to conduct themselves as professionals.”
Though the CGPD’s track record mirrors national concerns about law enforcement very little, Shepherd and Gagner are receptive to discussions about new models and new tactics to increase efficiency and safety.
One of those models has roots right here in Lane County.
(Part 2 will focus on current challenges and potential changes for local law enforcement.)