“I think a leader’s goal is to train and create the next leaders behind them. And that’s what I hope I’ve done here,” Scott Denham said, after serving 24 years with the Lane County Sheriff Office.
Denham is a father of three who has worn many hats during his 24 years with the Lane County Sheriff’s department. From serving as a sergeant in Creswell and spearheading ALICE active-shooter training in schools to solving property crimes and starting the “Coffee with a Cop” program, he was not only dedicated to the force but to the well-being of his community.
“I think a leader’s goal is to train and create the next leaders behind them. And that’s what I hope I’ve done here,” Denham said.
He’d be the first to tell you that his love of service stems from his faith. And that he’s always been motivated to help his community. That’s what ultimately moved him to join law enforcement, Denham said.
Denham said it all started with his dad, Ian, who ran youth groups for 50 years in Lancaster, Calif., a city in northern Los Angeles County, in the Antelope Valley of the western Mojave Desert. “When it comes to wanting to live a life of service, I think I got that from him,” Denham said. A few days before his passing, Denham’s sister wheeled their father into a Gideons International Conference. “Right up to the day he died, he passed out bibles,” Denham said.
While he admits the profession has worn him down at times with its physical and emotional demands, he said there are many aspects of it that he’ll miss as he moves closer to his well-deserved retirement.
His career took him all over the globe, up and down the west coast, and now, to Collin County, Texas, near his son Ryan and two grandkids. Another grandchild is on the way.
The military was a launchpad for his career journey. He enlisted in the Army at 18 and worked as a combat engineer stationed in Hawaii, traveling to Panama, Australia, Thailand and Korea for training and exercises. “Even then, Hawaii was expensive,” joked Denham. “You don’t save any money in the military in Hawaii… but you do have a lot of fun.”
He moved to Los Angeles soon after, where he served in the National Guard for 22 years. He and his wife, Roberta, worked together in the Sybil Brand Institute, a women’s prison outside L.A., “sharing shifts and lunches,” said Denham, with a smile.
A lot to learn
Denham seemed to find himself “in the thick of things.”
On his first day in the jail, he recalled being alone, with no real training or supervision, just a set of keys in his pocket and a radio on his hip. “And really, on the first day, the inmates were helping me out,” Denham said.
He was responsible for picking up a phone on the wall just behind him during guard duty, which never rang, only blinked and flashed red. “The inmates pointed behind me and said, uh, hey man, you’re supposed to answer that,” Denham laughed.
It was Denham’s first exposure to building rapport and respect with incarcerated people, which came in handy in his later work as a sergeant. “I had to learn during that time how to be soft, how to be stern, when to turn those switches off and on and things like that.”
Shortly after, he was promoted to deputy and attended the Los Angeles Sheriff Academy and was assigned to the Inmate Reception Center. He jumped at the chance when a position opened to serve with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office.
The Lane County Sheriff’s Office regularly contracts with smaller, rural communities without a robust police force of their own. During his career at LCSO, Denham worked multiple contracts with Veneta and Creswell.
In 2013, his “welcome to Lane County contract,” as he put it, included working under acting Lane County Sheriff Cliff Harrold in Veneta.
Denham and Harrold worked together on a high-profile encounter with a kidnapper in Veneta, who abducted a 12-year-old girl from north Eugene.
After a frantic search across the county, Denham recalled his instincts kicking in and guiding him up Territorial Highway. “I had a voice telling me, which was God telling me, to drive up there and see what you see. And lo and behold, right around Clear Lake Road, I see the car.”
He chased the car for 20 minutes through the hills of western Lane, where backup eventually reached him, and officers were able to stop the stolen vehicle.
“That’s one of the calls that is memorialized in your brain forever. I remember every step of the pursuit vividly. There are a lot of things about this job I’d like to forget, a lot of violence with no rhyme or reason. But helping her pushed me. It reminded me why it is I do what I do,” Denham said.
Later, the girl told officers that in the back of the car, she’d started praying for help and asking for someone to find her. Denham remembers it clearly: “She prayed that someone would find her … and my lights came on.”
He became the Creswell Sergeant in 2016.
“That was my first taste of community policing,” Denham said. “I enjoyed going and helping people. Big offices don’t really have the time to go help that lady that’s trying to get across the street, and that’s just one of the things I got to do in the community.”
As a born-and-raised Creswellian, who worked his way through the ranks of the sheriff’s department, Harrold knew Denham would be a perfect fit for the town. “Scott epitomizes service to the community. He’s going to be impossible to replace. He’s always just demonstrated a knack for connecting with the community in a deeper way than other deputies might not. He’s always very intentional about working through community issues,” Harrold said.
As a sergeant in Creswell, Denham was instrumental in organizing community outreach programs such as “Coffee with a Cop” and the ALICE Active Shooter Program.
“What I’ve appreciated in Sgt. Denham is his attentiveness to Council concerns and his readiness to engage the community, especially through the coffee with a cop program,” said Dave Stram, Creswell mayor. “Whenever I have approached Sgt. Denham, he is always ready to visit with me about concerns and answer my questions. He’s done a great job in Creswell.”
Denham has run the ALICE program for 10 years and has equipped nearly every school district in Lane County with the tools to use ALICE. The program’s necessity became all too clear last week after the harrowing news out of Uvalde, Texas, when an armed 18-year-old killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School.
ALICE hopes to “empower” schools and the community “with the skills and knowledge to respond when shots are fired,” the ALICE website reads. “If the police cannot be there in time to help, the next best thing is to prepare.”
“It’s one of the things I am most proud of, out of everything,” Denham said. “We encourage kids, district staff, teachers, and everybody throughout the entire county. We show them how to get empowered to make those split-second decisions when something happens and how to barricade rooms.”
During the Fourth of July parade in Creswell last year, Denham was the acting sergeant when hundreds crowded the streets – despite Covid-related restrictions – and cheered on an unpermitted parade that included members and organizers from far-right extremist groups.
“Last year, I wish they would have just listened and worked with us. Because we could have made stuff happen for them, but they chose not to,” Denham said. “I’m just as much a patriot as anybody else. But I have laws and rules that I have to follow as a police officer and citizen.” Denham is confident this year’s parade will be peaceful and is excited for it to “return to normal.”
Eyes on Texas
Up next for Denham? The 24-year resident of North Eugene will be riding into north Texas, just not exactly easing into the sunset of his career. He’s been certified to continue his law enforcement career in Texas, where Roberta is already living in their new home. The big attraction in Texas isn’t the job, however. Family, of course, is the motivation. He’ll be closer to his son, daughter and grandkids. Another son, Alan, remains in Oregon, beginning his own journey in law enforcement.
Alan has been “letting me stay in his place, that I sold him, for a little while before I move,” Denham said, laughing.
Alan Denham works as a deputy in the Lane County jail, and he attributes his passion for service to his dad.
“He just had a strong influence on me, and how he was able to help his community was something I always noticed. Even when he’s trying to enforce the laws and do his job, he still has a compassion for people and a drive to serve the community to the best of his ability and make a difference,” Alan said. “I mean, we’ve gone from working with military families to stepping up in baseball to being a leader of our church. He sacrificed his free time so that we could have opportunities to learn proper morals and how to treat others with compassion, dignity and respect.”
Throughout his tenure in Oregon, Denham has been involved in church life, Little League baseball and the local charter school. He took his kids out to the baseball diamond on weekends, lining fields, pulling weeds and umpiring games.
It’s been quite the ride, and despite the challenging moments, Denham is quick to recall the highs in a community where he felt “well supported.”
Denham said he’d sometimes go weeks without buying coffee, courtesy of citizens picking up his bill in drive-thrus. He keeps the momentum going, paying it forward to the other officers in the area.
He also recalled his personal rule of “always waving to anyone who waves at you,” especially young kids. “I mean, every time we drive in the community, everybody waves. Creswell is still friendly. It’s who we are,” Denham said.
On an emotional last patrol, Denham signed off over the radio, “Thank you for having my back for the last 24 years,” he said, his voice catching slightly.
Dispatch responded, “On behalf of the department and the citizens of Lane County – especially Creswell – we thank you for your over 24 years of service. You’ve been a valued member of this department and served as an exceptional example of leadership throughout your time here. Your poised, focused and calm demeanor will greatly be missed. Enjoy your retirement and time with your wife and family, and enjoy ‘cowboy life’ in Texas. Your watch has ended, and your brothers and sisters have it from here.”
The voices of his fellow “brothers and sisters” poured in over the radio, thanking Denham for his time on the force – a fitting send off for the guy who’s spent years putting service above self.