Exit Interview: Retired Police Chief Sassaman Talks Shop

Back in February, when we first reported that Corvallis Police Chief Jon Sassaman had announced he would retire effective on June 30, nobody could have anticipated the current turning point.  

Across the country, people are protesting in favor of institutional reform for police. Amid the tension, The Advocate interviewed former Chief Sassaman, who provided a clear sense of where he believes the city’s police department stands on a number of issues.   

Sassaman cautioned that it is not possible to lump all law enforcement agencies into the same category, and not possible to compare the Corvallis Police Department to a wide variety of other agencies. He said each agency is unique, as is each community. To be successful, CPD has sought a high level of community engagement in the spirit of a working partnership.  

Credentials  

Policies are at the foundation of police work. CPD is accredited through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), and Sassaman said the department adheres to the highest policing standards for law enforcement agencies. CALEA standards are set by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the National Sheriff’s Association, and the Police Executive Research Forum.  

“In order to be accredited, not only do we need to establish our policies based on these high standards, but we must continually document proof that we are following those policies,” Sassaman said in an email. “We are then subject to an on-site assessment by independent experts who physically inspect our facilities, scour our documentation, interview our staff, and hold a public forum for input from our community.”  

CPD has been CALEA accredited since 1995, and is one of just three agencies in Oregon that is currently accredited by CALEA, the others being the Albany Police Department and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. In its most recent assessment, CPD was awarded the Meritorious Gold Standard in accreditation.   

Hiring and Training  

Public scrutiny of law enforcement peaked following the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white. Chauvin was recorded kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes after Floyd was taken into custody for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Chauvin and three other officers were fired and criminally charged for Floyd’s death.  

To safeguard against actions motivated by racial bias, Sassaman said CPD starts by hiring people with a sense of humanity. The department specifically recruits for women and minorities to ensure the agency reflects the community as well as possible. CPD is also among the few agencies that require at least two years of college for sworn staff.  

Written testing is geared towards emotional intelligence and is followed by three interview panels, including one that incorporates community members for a diversity of input. There is also a comprehensive background investigation of character, ethics, and integrity, among other factors. Additionally, candidates must pass a full psychological exam from a licensed psychologist.  

Once they’re in field training, one of the 15 core elements of officers’ weekly evaluations is cultural diversity. Another is ethics. Between the police academy and CPD, a new officer is immersed in 14-16 months of training before they begin to work independently in the community.  

Throughout an officer’s career, CPD examines who they are stopping and interacting with to see if there are any trends. CPD officers are required to complete a data form after each stop to capture a variety of information. The form is electronically uploaded in real time to a secure database, and shared with the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission in compliance with 2017 legislation.   

Racial Bias  

To create a culture of respect for diversity within CPD, the department focuses on hiring the right people, including actively recruiting women and minority applicants, with an emphasis on training not just for officers, but for all staff. While the state requires annual ethics training, Sassaman said CPD knows the Corvallis community expects more of its officers.   

The department aims for its staff to attend diversity-related training four times a year in addition to providing at least four hours of yearly ethics training. The training comes in many forms such as online sessions, video presentations, seminars, and collaborative training with the local NAACP, which occurred a few years ago. Training topics range from cultures, beliefs, building community trust, communication, hate crimes, explicit and implicit bias, white privilege, power structures, and more.   

Notably, CPD is composed of 65-percent male and 35-percent female staff. For a department its size, CPD has significantly more female officers than national averages. Overall, CPD staff are an estimated 88 percent Caucasian, 5 percent African American, 4 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 3 percent Hispanic, and around 1 percent “other.” Currently, 71 percent of officers hold at least a bachelor’s degree.  

Use of Force 

With police brutality at the center of recent protests, the use of force is being closely examined in America. Sassaman said CPD recognizes and respects the value of all human life, and any force response by officers is a serious responsibility. He said CPD’s fundamental duties include protecting the rights of individuals, safeguarding lives and property, and protecting against violence and disorder.  

“Our officers receive ongoing training in force response including de-escalation techniques as well as tactics that may safely subdue combative people while minimizing the risk of injury,” Sassaman said. “Our policies also require our officers to intervene if they see another officer acting in a manner that is not consistent with the law or our policy.”  

Any time officers use force or a weapon, or if there is an injury, the on-duty supervisor is required to respond and conduct a full, independent investigation, which is then reviewed by the watch commander, division commander, and chief of police to evaluate compliance with departmental policy and philosophy. CPD also reports monthly to the FBI national use-of-force data reporting program.  

The use of chokeholds by police has been seen as controversial after a number of incidents including Floyd’s death in Minnesota. CPD does not and has not taught officers to use chokeholds, which specifically target the airway of a person to prohibit breathing. Recently, in an Advocate CitySpeak, Sassaman noted that unlike some agencies, it does not have surplus military vehicles or equipment, and does not plan to acquire any.  

Protests and Riots  

Demonstrators, protestors, and rioters have been met in some cities by law enforcement clad in riot gear, using tear gas and flashbang grenades to disperse crowds. Corvallis saw peaceful gatherings with little to no law enforcement presence needed except to facilitate traffic safety. Sassaman said CPD officers are sworn to support the Constitution, which means respecting everyone’s rights.   

“Our primary role was to respect the right of our community members to protest,” Sassaman said. “It is our desire for protests or demonstrations to be a safe place for those participating… We worked to that end.”  

Responding to those who are participating in violence or looting in other cities, Sassaman said there is a significant difference between a protest – which could be the first step in finding solutions – and violence – which only causes more problems.   

“Protest can help heal a community; looting only harms a community,” Sassaman said.  

Calls for Reform  

Law enforcement reform advocates often call for misconduct to be tracked through a national database with the goal of preventing offenders from relocating to other departments. Sassaman said the first hurdle to such a concept is defining misconduct. Each department has its own policies, each state has its own laws, and court district decisions don’t apply outside of their jurisdictions.   

Sassaman said it is not equitable to assume a universal definition of misconduct. However, he said if there was a level of nationwide consistency achieved, CPD would support a database for tracking misconduct.  

Critics of law enforcement also question whether unions stand as obstacles to transparency when it comes to misconduct. Sassaman said unions don’t set policies or tell employers how to operate in Oregon. He noted that employees in a wide variety of professions have the right to collective bargaining representation.  

Some have recently floated the idea of defunding the police, which has interpretations from shutting down agencies altogether to redirecting funding to other organizations such as mental health responders and social workers, as well as removing certain tasks that aren’t necessarily crime-driven from law enforcement’s purview. Sassaman did not respond to an inquiry regarding CPD’s approach to mental health concerns when responding to an incident where the subject might be in crisis.   

Sassaman said the defunding police concept seems like it might have long-term implications that could ultimately be detrimental to the communities calling for that action. He said CPD is grateful for the more collaborative relationship in Corvallis, working together to resolve issues.   

Sassaman, who retired from CPD after 32 years of service, declined to share his future plans with The Advocate.   

Would you like to share an experience you had with law enforcement in Corvallis? Email your comments to editor@corvallisadvocate.com.  

By Cody Mann