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Two Keizer cops come packing law degrees

Of the Keizertimes

Before getting into what distinguishes Keizer Police Department Det. Andy Phelps and Officer RJ Farrens from their peers in the Keizer Police Department, it’s necessary to understand the difference between “probable cause” and “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

An officer needs probable cause to issue a citation or place a suspect under arrest. There is no exact measurement for probable cause because it can vary from incident to incident but, as a rule of thumb, an officer wants a better than 50 percent suspicion of a person having committed a criminal act.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is what prosecuting lawyers are looking for when presenting a case to a judge or jury. Ideally, they are seeking near-certainty that the person they are charging with a crime is the one that is guilty.

“The criminal justice system as a whole is a lot bigger than just the arrest,” said Phelps, who started as a KPD reserve officer in 2010 before being hired on full-time in 2012. “Anyone in law enforcement is trying to pursue justice. If evidence I collect makes it harder to get a conviction, that is totally fine with me. I want to collect it and paint the true picture, not skew the evidence. If the suspect didn’t do it, I want that to be shown.”

What makes Phelps and Farrens particularly adept at the case-building aspect of the job is that both have law degrees and passed the bar exam that could have led to careers as attorneys. Farrens took a job with KPD two years ago when he was on the cusp of applying to becoming a lawyer outright. Phelps was a court-certified lawyer with the Marion County District Attorney’s Office when he transitioned to the law enforcement side of the justice system, which was his plan all along.

“When I was 4 years old, I had an officer come into my life and tell me everything was going to be okay that day, and it ended up being okay. In my mind, that made the officer a hero, I think it was that exposure that formed what I think of cops,” said Farrens.

Farrens, the youngest of several siblings, excelled in school, triple-majored in history, religion, and philosophy at the College of Idaho and knew he wanted to tackle graduate school. He picked Willamette University for law school when it came time to make a decision.

Like Phelps, he was working for the Marion County District Attorney’s (MCDA) Office when he began taking another look at a law enforcement career.

“If a report was good, that made it easier in court,” Farrens said. “I realized that if I wanted to make a positive impact in the criminal justice system, the work starts here.”

Phelps said that a typical course of study in law school focuses on federal law because graduates can end up working anywhere in the country, but he benefitted from studying Oregon case law in the class of Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz, the former head of the Oregon Supreme Court.

“What really refined my Oregon law knowledge was my experience as a law clerk at the Marion County D.A.’s office,” Phelps said.

When he started at the MCDA, Phelps was assigned as a DUII law clerk which meant reviewing DUII cases throughout the county to determine if the officer who made the stop had followed all the rules and writing counterarguments when defending attorneys challenged some aspect of the incident.

“Having that background helps me think about what is needed to prosecute a case,” Phelps said. “It gives me a broader perspective behind the meaning of the law and I hope it helps me determine how to reach the reasonable doubt standard.”

Farrens offered an example of how taking those extra steps can work when he’s investigating an incident.

Not too long ago, Farrens met a woman at Salem Hospital with what he called “considerable face injuries.” He said it looked as though the woman had been in a fight and there was even potential probable cause to arrest someone for the crime. But, by investigating further and not simply placing the suspect under arrest, Farrens eventually learned that the wounds had been self-inflicted.

“I was looking for beyond a reasonable doubt and it came back to not having probable cause,” he said.

Phelps said his law degree helps in threading the needle when it comes to search and seizure. Like probable cause, there is no one-size-fits-all guideline for when an officer can search or seize property. The facts of each case are different and the timeline officers are operating under is also  variable. Instead, precedents set in the courts establish boundaries regarding search and seizure, which lawyers then use as measuring sticks in the cases that are most like the one they are prosecuting or defending.

“The lawyers get a chance to review facts for several weeks while the patrol officer has to make the decision in a split-second. I like knowing what my parameters are and what I have to work between,” Phelps said.

Neither officer believes the law degree places them above other cops on the beat, their backgrounds are simply one more tool in the collective toolbox. As Farrens put it, the biggest asset he’s gleaned from the extra degree is an appreciation of the patience police work takes.

One of Farrens’ proudest engagements thus far was with a woman that had been a frequent source of disruption in the community. Farrens was patient and learned her problems were stemming from substance abuse and that the woman’s roommate situation was a regular incitement. Through conversation he had with her, the woman found a way to change her situation and Farrens helped find her a new roommate he can check in with if problems occur. Her contacts with police are now almost non-existent.

“So many of us join this profession because we want to help people, not arrest people. We do that often. The rewarding times are when we can prevent things from happening,” Farrens said.