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Behind the badge: Q&A with KPD’s Union President

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By Eric A. Howald
Of the Keizertimes

With law enforcement officers and their actions the topic of conversations across the country, the staff at the Keizertimes thought a conversation with the president of the Keizer Police Department Union was long overdue.

Officer Darsy Olafson has served as president of the KPD officer union for the past eight years and we are presenting our conversation with him in a question and answer format over the next two weeks.

This first part will explore how national incidents are affecting Keizer officers, next week’s installment will look at local enforcement issues.

Keizertimes questions and remarks are in bold type.

How are recent events, both the officer-involved shootings and police ambushes, affecting members of the KPD? 

I’ve talked with the guys about that to see what they are seeing. I do a lot of plainclothes work and they are out there in uniform. With the stuff going on nationally, it could be more alarming to them. As of yet, they said, they’re a little more vigilant, but it’s been more business-as-usual.

They go out there to do the work because those comments and feelings are going to be there either way.

Are they seeing increases in that talk locally?

In some regards, yes, but a lot of it is on social media. It’s really easy for someone sitting in a recliner to judge what’s going on, but for an officer, sometimes they have as little as five seconds to assess a situation and determine their response.

They get a few more comments, but they tend to come from the people who were anti-police anyway. (The detractors) just a little more bolstered right now given everything that’s going on.

They feel more empowered to voice their opinion.

The other aspect of it is the media. We feel there is a lot of negative talk about the different cases, but some of those cases are playing out differently from the preconceived notions. If you look at Baltimore (a case involving a man named Freddie Gray who died as a result of injuries while in police custody), those guys were vilified, but we don’t hear a lot about them going to court and being found not guilty or acquitted.

There has been lots of chatter about police forces becoming more fearful of taking action given the increased scrutiny by media and members of the public. Is this issue affecting KPD? 

With the Keizer Police Department, no.

When people walk up to us, we have to figure out what is going on with them because you may just be having someone who is having a bad day, they might be having mental health issues.

What steps, if any, is the union taking to be proactive as far as community engagement in light of recent events? 

I don’t know that it has changed a lot. Our guys are pretty professional. They go out and stuff will happen, but they want to go strap the vest on every single day. We could let all of the fervor and all of the talk affect us, but we choose not to.

Chief (John) Teague made the comment to us a couple of years ago that we have to choose not to be offended. You can let all the negativity affect you, or you can just show up and do your job.

Keizer’s lucky to have a department of professionals. If we heard a lot of our officers venting in the office, we would probably start talking about it more as a union.

As a police officer, you deal with other peoples’ problems, and then it’s kind of hard at some points, but we support each other as much as we can so we don’t take it out (on the street). When we have recruits, I talk with them a lot about not having a personal take on any situation. You don’t want the officer to care about the outcome of a case because it may change the investigation. They are there to get the facts and move on.

Accurate or not, one of the public perceptions is that when officers end up involved in the shooting of a suspect, armed or otherwise, is that the “blue wall of silence” slams down and breeds suspicion. Does the union acknowledge that there are bad actors in police uniforms?

The wall isn’t the officer’s choice. In officer-involved shootings, the officer is told not to talk about it. Officers would love nothing more than to say, this is what happened, but the message from the district attorney’s office down is to allow the investigation to run its course and then the  grand jury will make the decision.

Unfortunately, everyone else out there gets to speculate for two weeks, or however long it takes. Little of it is based on fact, even when there is video. Often it’s a video that is available before all the other facts are out there. It’s a little frustrating for that to happen because it’s not the officers dictating that process.

One of the conversations happening statewide is regarding the 48-hour window in which officers are given before giving their statements when a shooting occurs. What is the union’s position in that issue?

There is no actual requirement on that time and we look at it up to a 72-hour window. If we show up on scene, I’m not asking what happened, I want the investigation to run its course.

One of the things that doesn’t get discussed is that when there is an officer-involved shooting, the officer is stripped of everything right down to their underwear.

We want everything to be as pristine as the moment that happened, but as an officer, it’s difficult to go through that process. We explain it to them that it’s happening for their benefit, so when that grand jury looks at the evidence, they have a complete picture.

I can also see that being a point of pride.

Oh, it’s rough. And when you hear about a wall of silence, that isn’t the reason why we are keeping quiet. We want the investigation to be as clean a possible so there are no doubts.

That’s hard for an officer to understand because they may be asking themselves what they did wrong. It may not have been anything at all, but we try to treat everyone the same no matter who we’re dealing with. The goal is to remove the ability for people to question the investigation, but you’re fighting an uphill battle sometimes.

So, how does a fellow officer assess an officer-involved shooting? What tools do you use based on your experiences to determine whether an lethal force is justified?

All of it is on a case-by-case. You have to take into consideration when a video starts, whether there are missing pieces. We also can’t judge based solely on the moment.

If you flip the script and put someone in a situation where they know there is a loaded gun on a person, it may not be in their hand, the question is, “Who is going home at the end of the day?”

Sitting here, we have a chance to think about it, but in that situation the stress levels are enormous. You feel like you’re fighting for your life. That’s why we try not to judge and let process run its course.

Do we acknowledge that there are bad guys that are also officers? Oh, yeah. There are and they are few and far between.

What tools can or should be used to weed out bad actors?

I think there’s a lot of tools to do that and it’s also case-by-case. Keizer, for the most part, is very fond of us. They don’t judge us based on what’s happening in other places.

The departments are also different animals. In a place like Los Angeles, they have 10,000 cops. (KPD has less than 40). L.A. might hire 200 new officers in one go. We have the ability to slow down our hiring, which becomes a burden for our patrol guys, but it gives us time to weed out the bad actors.

There are oral interviews with administrators, integrity interviews with detectives, physical health exams, mental health exams, multiple layers that a recruit has to pass through. That’s before they are hired, then they go to the academy for testing and evaluations and then they come back and there’s another six months of field training. We’re talking up to 18 months for someone to be ready to go out on the road solo. And, really, that’s just the beginning of the learning process.

Cops are some of the most judgemental people of other cops because if some guy screws up in Louisiana, we’re judged by that. Because we wear the same uniform, people don’t separate a cop in Keizer from a cop somewhere else in the country.

If there’s a person who shouldn’t be an officer, we want them out as badly as anyone else. I think Keizer does a pretty good job and all our officers are professional.

There’s a lot of talk about law enforcement officers adapting, and we constantly adapt. We look at policies and change the ones that need changing, but society also needs to work on adapting. We go on a lot of calls where the first thing that happens is an officer is screamed at by someone. Their opinion is that cops are paid to be treated however they choose to treat us. We’re expected to adapt to them as citizens, even if they are screaming at us. If people could just relax it would make a huge difference.

If you’re acting like a jerk to us, you may get a reciprocated response. Yelling makes it harder to keep things flowing and makes it harder to take a report.

There are also smaller instances to, like when our officers are walking through the crowd during Iris Festival and people start making oinking noises.

That’s concerning because if you’re walking through a crowd and someone starts oinking at you, that’s the start of a dehumanizing process.

Our guys are going to act like professionals regardless, but it’s also worth noting that the 10 percent of people we get that from are the same 10 percent of people we’re going to end up dealing with at some point.

We have great relations with the general public. We get to know a lot of people that we never arrest. That 10 percent has been arrested, or someone they’re close to has been arrested. They’re generally not the biggest fans, but then there are others. I saw a guy a couple of weeks ago who I had arrested multiple times when he lived in the city before, and he was like, “Hey, what’s up?”

It all comes down to how you treat people. You can get in a fight with somebody and pick them up and dust them off. In the moment, they are making a poor choice, but it’s not personal. They aren’t looking at me as an individual, they are trying to get away from the uniform.

(To be continued in the Aug. 5 edition of the Keizertimes.)