Oregon police chief Brian Uhl is responding to public criticism with three strategies designed to increase public confidence in the police department and his handling of it.
In November, the Village Board held a closed session meeting to discuss Uhl’s performance. Village President Jeanne Carpenter read a prepared statement after the closed session outlining the board’s concerns, including relations with some members of the public and the Oregon School District.
Carpenter noted some citizens had complained about his conduct during various interactions with him, and she called into question his comments on the department’s Facebook page relating to an agreement that was being worked on to continue stationing a school resource officer in the high school.
Uhl has so far responded to those concerns with public outreach, part of a strategic plan he presented to the board in November.
One community meeting was with one of his more vocal critics, a local Facebook group known as the Oregon Allies, who say they speak on behalf of underrepresented voices in the village.
During that meeting, Uhl apologized to residents who were upset and explained how the police department would improve relations with the community and school leaders. He told members there would be more focus on community policing, outreach and ways to keep kids safe and prevent violence in schools.
Uhl’s report to the board outlines three key strategies: collaborating with community members to identify and solve problems; engaging in education and enforcement efforts to gain voluntary compliance with the law; and thoroughly investigating criminal acts to hold perpetrators accountable and provide relief for crime victims.
He told the Observer in an Nov. 26 email his plan starts with having community monthly meetings, beginning in January, at various locations and different times of the day so as many people who would like to attend, can. Uhl wrote that he would let people know when these meetings are on the department’s Facebook page.
As examples of his outreach efforts, he said he attended the Oregon’s Tree Lighting and Chili Dinner that evening — and planned to go to more of the Oregon Area Progressives’ monthly open mic nights.
“My initial plan is to be more active and show a greater presence in the community,” Uhl wrote. “You will see me at local events as well as reaching out to organizations like the Chamber, Rotary and Optimist Clubs.”
The first strategy in Uhl’s report is solving problems related to seven issues – traffic, home burglaries, drugs and alcohol, mental health, school safety, race and domestic violence.
Solving those issues, Uhl said, reflects how the department places high importance on community policing. If people know those who keep them safe care about their struggles, they will be more apt to trust their local police department.
“We simply cannot do our jobs effectively without a partnership with the community,” Uhl said. “As most people know, we cannot be everywhere at once and we need the community to help us as an effective police agency.”
To address traffic safety, Uhl’s report states, the department will use data to ensure less speeding by motorists and more pedestrian and bike safety. For burglaries, it will make more use of social media to spread awareness, establish connections with neighborhood associations and assign overtime for unmarked patrols.
For drugs and alcohol, the department plans to partner with the Oregon Area Wellness Coalition and Oregon Cares, participating in national drug take back days and more in service training for officers to understand the effects of substances on the brain. For mental health, the goal is also more officer training and more work with the Oregon Area Senior Center.
To address school safety, OPD plans to hold school safety meetings, engage in threat and security assessments, pay more attention to online threats to kids and continue to help alleviate traffic congestion at peak times when parents drop kids off and pick them up.
The report has several plans to address concerns of race, a key issue brought up by the Allies.
Those include collecting traffic stop data, diversifying the police department by hiring more women and minorities, gathering data about how citizens feel about their interactions with police and increasing bias training – something the Allies specifically asked for in their meeting with Uhl.
“If some community members don’t feel they have a voice, they won’t come to use it with their concerns,” Uhl said.
Education and enforcement
The department’s emphasis on enforcement will focus on seat belt compliance, pedestrians, speeding and underage drinking.
“I need to understand what the issues are in order to determine how best to address possible concerns,” Uhl said.
Speeding, Uhl’s report states, is the No. 1 complaint the department receives. To improve enforcement, the department plans to use speed trailer data and establish trouble areas throughout the village. The department will also use accident data and publicize it, increase enforcement around the areas that need it and ask the public to assist this issue in slowing down on their own. Uhl’s report says OPD might also increase the number of fixed speed signs in the community from the current three.
The community has brought up pedestrian safety multiple times over the past year, both near schools and at other intersections. To help Oregon pedestrians, the department plans to spread this messaging around schools, partner with the Oregon Area Wellness Coalition to ensure zones are well marked, ensure flashing beacons are timed properly, especially for the elderly and for the young and work with the senior center.
To address underage drinking, the department will explore different approaches to communicate with parents, once again partner with the Oregon Area Wellness Coalition and have the SRO engage with students. It will specifically educate parents about locking their liquor cabinets and hold sessions for parents, bringing in a doctor to talk about the effects of alcohol on the brain, growth and learning.
And to best ensure seatbelt compliance, the report states the department will work toward clearly articulating the risk to safety when someone doesn’t put their seatbelt on, use mock accidents with students, hold safety camps, gather data and adjust enforcement efforts and spread more social media awareness.
Uhl’s report says the third strategy – investigating criminal acts and providing relief for victims – is connected to the police department becoming an accredited organization.
The department will continue to operate within the hundreds of guidelines set by Wisconsin Law Enforcement Accreditation Group, which accredited OPD on Nov. 8. Part of keeping this accreditation is highlighting a policy in summary forum for each of its monthly reports to the board, which will provide an opportunity for the public to educate themselves.
“We invited assessors to make sure we are operating within the law and providing the best police services as one of the only 43 accredited agencies in the state and we hope the community will recognize this achievement and be proud of their police department,” Uhl said.
The department updated more than 100 policies over the past year to gain the accreditation, and those include handling of citizen complaints. Uhl’s report says in addition to following state law and being timely, the department will use footage from body cameras worn by its officers, report to complaint resolutions to the Village Board and perform a general review of traffic stops to investigate officer conduct.
Another plan is to use restorative justice practices to help crime victims, pay special attention to domestic violence and sexual assault, assign offers to follow up with victims – in increments of 30, 60 and 90 days for welfare services – and consider assigning a community officer to victims with specific needs.
“We know that our officers work in a very difficult, highly stressful, and heavily scrutinized profession,” Uhl said. “We deal with people in crisis on a regular basis and that leads to stressful encounters. Not everyone will agree with the actions we take and this can sometimes lead to citizen complaints against us.”
Uhl said all those complaints are taken seriously.
“All citizen complaints are thoroughly investigated,” he said. “By doing this, we look to understand how things could have been handled differently while holding ourselves accountable for our actions.”
The chief said the department welcomes outside scrutiny, which is why accreditation for the department is significant.