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The Skanner spoke with two sheriff’s office veterans currently vying for the seat: Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell and Capt. Derrick Peterson.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 27 April 2022

mike reese introOutgoing Multnomah County Sheriff Mike ReeseAs Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese reaches his term limit, three members of law enforcement are running to replace him in the first contested race for the office in 12 years. 

The Skanner spoke with two sheriff’s office veterans currently vying for the seat: Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell and Capt. Derrick Peterson. Multnomah County deputy Nicholas Alberts has also filed to run for the position, though his campaign activities have been limited. 

A debate between Morrisey O’Donnell and Peterson, hosted by the City Club of Portland, can be viewed below. 

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.  

 

Derrick Peterson

Derrick Peterson has worked largely in the sheriff's office corrections division for the past 35 years, and concurrently as a longtime culture diversity trainer for the Department of Public Safety and Standards Training. He also serves as president of the local chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.  

 

What qualifies you for the position of Multnomah County Sheriff?  

I’ve worked with the sheriff’s office for 35 years, close to 25 years have been spent in management. I’ve worked almost every position in the sheriff’s office from the corrections side of all the way up to chief deputy of corrections facilities.

I’m also well developed in the community as far as working with organizations such as Interfaith Peace and Action Collaborative, Portland Safety Action Coalition, the Rotary Club. I’ve had the opportunity to be part of committees about police reform, so there are five or six House bills that have come out where I was part of a committee where I was able to testify or give information about policing, as well as community issues, to help form those particular reforms.

I’ve been a culture diversity instructor for over 25 years at the police academy, for the Department of Public Safety and Standards Training.  

 

What do you see as factors for the increase in violent crime in the county over the past two years? 

What you have seen is a culmination of the pandemic, people not being able to get out and socialize. You get a lot of people who don’t know how to de-escalate situations, along with the increase in homelessness issues. I know that kids are frustrated and they don’t know how to deal with controversy. I think you have a frustrated society and you see things have gone off the rails, so to speak. 

Then you have a broken justice system within that which has had some of the same issues from the pandemic because of capacity. In our jails we had to release out more people than we would normally do because of COVID issues and trying to keep spacing. That didn’t help, because now you’re not holding people in jail for a long enough period of time to actually be effective in saying hey, let’s figure out other ways to adjudicate and/or address the issues at hand.

Your prosecutor, the DA’s office, they’re losing employees as we are, which means not being able to prosecute and take care of the indictments pressing forward. It just keeps going. Are we going to open up more jail beds to help mitigate that situation? It can’t just be jail beds, it has to be all hands on deck within our criminal justice system partners to figure this out, along with our community. 

That’s uncorked an array of crime. It’s just tough out there.

If you’re not holding people accountable then you’re having issues because they can just go back out and continue to do the same thing because they’re not getting any consequences behind those actions.  

 

What would you do to mitigate such violence? 

It’s a multifaceted approach. You definitely need all the leaders in the community, not only just political leaders – law enforcement, community organizations – to really attack this. It was unfortunate that the gang enforcement team got disbanded. Whether that was a good move or not, the issue is that all the resources that they gathered over years, and all the trust that they were able to reach out and gather, community trust and leads, that all went away. So with the new (Family Involvement Team), they’re having to re-establish those relationships and reestablish trust. 

The sheriff’s office has what they call the (Homeless Outreach and Programs Engagement (HOPE) team), which goes out and actually makes connections with the homeless folks out there, connecting them to services. You need more of those kind of type programs, along with the other arm of it: getting them housing. We have Bybee Lakes that is doing very well with converting (Wapato) jail into a treatment program with referent services. We have 300 jail beds that aren’t being used right now, how can we use them in a way to reimagine a therapeutic dorm setting, with services within those dorms to really help folks who are down on their luck and not doing well? 

And then partnering with organizations like Rescue Mission, there’s a whole host of programs like that out in our community doing fantastic work. 

And then we could use community members such as ex-gang members possibly, those that really have a pulse on what’s happening in our communities and the youth who are at risk, and plug them into some of those organizations and programs, to make it a more 360 approach.

It’s obvious that with the pressures (of the pandemic) and being closed behind doors, people have lost skill sets. We need to gain those back in some fashion, to instill in them the ability to connect to other folks, respect other people and be able to de-escalate situations instead of going to fisticuffs or getting a gun. It’s incumbent that we have some kind of programming out there that people can get connected to through the churches, through other organizations people trust. 

 

What would you do to promote equity within the culture of law enforcement? 

As someone who’s been teaching diversity down at the academy for 25 years, it really relies on open communication and specifically within the department, making a true effort to be more diverse…

We need to move past Diversity 101 or Equity 101.

I see people continue to go to some of these same trainings over and over again, and it doesn’t move them from off of first base to second base to really start having robust conversations that can be somewhat uncomfortable. 

It’s having professionals that can come in and not be exclusive but inclusive and understand that you have an array of people that don’t have the skill sets to have those kinds of conversations. But other people do, and to be able to bring (trainees) in where they’re not disenfranchised, but where they feel like ‘I do have some issues I do need to deal with and work with, and we’re all in it together and I think it’s extremely important that we have those conversations.’

And then looking at our policies, I think it’s extremely important that we don’t have equity as just a written document, it needs to be living and actually reach the heartbeat of our officers, our deputies, the people who work in our department. It’s going to take elements of management to be able to instill that, and having a vision for it through training and then through relationship-building and expectations.  

 

If elected, what would be your approach to ending racial bias in your department and promoting trust within communities of color?  

We often talk about privilege, how far does that go? I think everyone is subject to privilege on a certain level. As a trainer I try to work at a higher level of consciousness across the board, not just of Black and white but female and male, kids, to discuss the different things other people are subject to but which we don’t always realize or even worry about. How are you impacting people and you don’t even realize it? That’s the kind of stuff I’m looking at, getting people to have a higher consciousness of who they are and their individual impact.

So if we can bring in that kind of higher level consciousness across the board, I think we’ll do a much better job. Addressing biases in that way, where you’re not disenfranchising people, because otherwise you can’t get them to the table, they won’t talk. 

Within the department, I would continue that training aspect but also get our managers up to speed as to what that looks like, and how are they going to be having those conversations on the lower levels with the people they manage?

And we can no longer be a sheriff's office that doesn’t reach out. The community shouldn’t have to come to us; we should be going out to the community. Proactive is the key word for me. 

We worked with Disability Rights Oregon (in county jails). Our attitude was ‘come in and show us what we’re doing wrong.’ So what other organizations are out there that can give us a different lens, a different viewpoint, to make the sheriff’s office better than it has ever been before? If you’re not open to that, that’s where a lot of police agencies have gotten themselves into trouble, because it becomes more of an elitist type of a profession – ‘No one can tell us what we do because this is our profession and we are the kings of it’ self-righteous type of situation. And we need to be a department that looks to open ourselves up even further than we ever have before.

It’s been over a decade since we’ve had a contested race (for sheriff), so the majority of people out there don’t even know what the sheriff’s office actually does. A lot of them don’t even know that 70% of the operations is corrections. 

That’s a big deal. We have a full-service law enforcement arm, but we only have 140 staff on that side. We have 450 corrections officers and command staff, up to about 500. So our operations, a major portion of it is around corrections and how we’re treating the citizens of Multnomah County and other counties within the four walls of the jail. 

Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell 

 

Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell currently serves as second-in-command to Sheriff Mike Reese and has been with the department for 25 years, working in both law enforcement and corrections leadership positions. If elected, she would be the first woman to serve as Multnomah County Sheriff.  

 

What qualifies you for the position of Multnomah County Sheriff?  

I’m a native Oregonian, and I came into Portland to attend University of Portland. If someone had told me that I’d be running for Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office 25 years later, I would have never believed it because I started my education in music. But I really wanted to look at where I could serve our community in a different way, and I didn’t see female leaders in our public safety. 

I’ve been with Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office now for over 25 years, and I started in the corrections division. My first 16 years was really working with our system providers and system partners and trying to look at, how could we provide a better path forward for people that become justice-involved? I then went through the promotional processes and I became a lieutenant. That gave me another opportunity to lead at a different level, still in the corrections division. 

Then I had the opportunity to lead the training unit. That’s where I also realized I wanted to lead the organization at the highest levels, so I attended the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training police academy. When I came back to my home organization I learned the job on the line level, working full-time, taking 911 calls, and really learning how we did the work. It helped me be innovative in how we could do it differently and better. 

I (later) moved over to lead the law enforcement division with the experience I gained through learning the job and then learning the leadership components as the chief deputy of corrections. Then in August of last year, I was appointed undersheriff, second-in-command, and my daily operations that I oversee now are the law enforcement division and our business services division, which encompasses 800 personnel and a $171 million budget. 

In 2019, I was appointed as sheriff Mike Reese’s interim designee. That is if he were unable to fulfill his term, I would step into that role, and that was unanimously approved by our County Commission.  

 

What do you see as factors for the increase in violent crime in the county over the past two years? 

I’m going to start with the unprecedented times in a pandemic. When we’re looking at youth and everything that may have been a prosocial activity – connecting with peers, connecting with leaders in our community and connecting with family –  a lot of that went away. We all know how using Zoom in meetings challenged us with building relationships. That was a long period of time and for our youth, I think that was really impactful. Helping guide and provide our youth those opportunities to be in positive environments I think is critical. 

And I think that stretches out to our community. People were isolated. People did not feel like they could meet their socioeconomic needs. I think that creates another level of why we’re seeing more violence in our communities.

And there were some policy decisions that were made that between all of our system partners – between the DA’s office, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Community Justice – some of them, I think, were opportunities to grow and be better, and that is some of the pretrial release opportunities. But being able to oversee all of those programs with the magnitude of people that were being supervised in our community, we want to make sure they’re on the right path. So I think that became challenging as well: our accountability structures.

Traditional accountability, we’re not engaging victims and survivors in (discussing) what does accountability look like to you?

Some of the work that we have done with our Close Street Supervision Unit is we have looked at robust ways to supervise people in the community so they stay connected to family, they stay connected to employment. But we also recognize that there are times that we have to ensure top priority of community safety. 

That’s where our jail facilities come in. We make sure that we are providing those resources and services to meet the unique needs of each person that is justice-involved. When you’re looking at policy decisions across the board, some of those we need to go back now and revisit as we’re coming out of the pandemic to ensure that what we put in place is really keeping our community safe. 

 

What would you do to mitigate such violence? 

Community trust, transparency, accountability.

We are very service-oriented and community-based-oriented because we recognize that we need to look at how we’re doing this work today, and what we’re doing isn’t necessarily working. So how can we build those partnerships to do that? 

It all comes down to collaboration across public safety partners, community-based resources, and neighborhoods and community leaders. 

We work closely with Healing Hurt People, a hospital-based response. I’m really proud of the work of Ray Moore, and I was super excited to actually get to meet him a couple years ago when I heard him speak at an event. Again, our deputies have bought into engaging in our community-based resources, and they call them whatever time of day when there is a gun violence incident or a violent incident, and their street outreach comes out and assists our community with one, building that bridge, hoping that people will provide information, since that is someone’s family member. 

Under my leadership I added resources to our civil unit, which is responsible for serving restraining orders, protecting victims and survivors of domestic violence. And the reason I added those resources is because in a court order, the person is required to relinquish their firearms. We wanted to ensure that we were getting firearms out of dangerous hands to protect our survivors and victims.

We also have a special investigations unit which under my leadership seized the largest seizure of illegal guns in the history of Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and again, this is making sure that guns stay out of dangerous hands. 

There’s also a public health component on how we can again provide that positive experience for our youth, and start talking about prevention with the Office of Violence Prevention, with our public health partners, and really being collaborative across the board. And I’m always looking for that next relationship or that next collaboration that will help us move forward and keep our community safe and really uplift our communities.  

 

What would you do to promote equity within the culture of law enforcement? 

About two years ago, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office brought on an equity and inclusion manager and she is phenomenal. What I’m most proud of throughout our partnership is training. To my knowledge, past trainings have really been sit in a classroom, here’s your four hours of PowerPoint and some discussion.

Alongside our equity and inclusion manager, we built out a 12-week learning experience.

We started out with a pilot with our Trimet Transit Police division, and then deputies that were assigned to community resource-type positions, our (HOPE) team and those who had worked in the schools in the past. So the first four weeks were really about active listening and communication skills, and really, as we were going into the final two months, it was bringing in community members to directly hear experiences on where we went wrong, where were the gaps? How could we do better? Versus being the group that talks. 

What I value were some of the training opportunities I was able to implement with equity, inclusion and learning from communities that are impacted by mental health and addiction. I brought in National Alliance on Mental Illness for a panel training for our corrections deputies. 

It’s about engaging with different training opportunities, but they can’t be one-size-fits-all, check the box, move on with your year. They have to be more aligned with these learning experiences. 

Then connecting with groups like Word is Bond. We brought youth ambassadors to speak to our management team in 2021, and really impactful experiences for all of our management team to hear how our youth have been impacted by law enforcement, by the pandemic, and how we can build those bridges. 

 

If elected, what would be your approach to ending racial bias in your department and promoting trust within communities of color?  

The community has said loud and clear ‘We want reforms.’ It’s our job to meet with community and build community relationships and trust so we can develop those policing strategies that are also in alignment with community expectations. 

We have to be transparent about what we’re doing within our organization, and we have to hold people accountable when they are not treating our community well or when there’s alleged misconduct.

Within our corrections system, we have accountability measures that range from robust camera systems throughout both of our facilities to our inspector, who does complaint intake and assesses those complaints and is not a sworn member of the sheriff’s office anymore. I supported that move to bring someone in that was a civilian that had some attorney experience to guide that work and have that more impartial view of specific cases. 

Ensuring that we’re providing the learning experiences, but we’re also providing training on how to engage with community that may be in a mental health crisis using de-escalation skills and trauma-informed responses. 

As for homelessness, some of the conversations from my opponents articulate a vision of operating jails for our homeless population. Setting aside how you would allow someone who is homeless in and out of a 24/7 locked facility, we should not be criminalizing poverty. I know that the outreach-first approach we’re doing with the HOPE team, accessing additional resources and being able to find emergency-type shelters, shorter-term shelters and long-term housing, is a model that we should be using across our community. 

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