Public Safety & Health

Interim chief responds to investigation 

Jeff Groth, interim police chief for the Cottage Grove Police Department, has more than 30 years experience in law enforcement. He might need every bit of it to wrangle all of the issues enveloping the CGPD right now and its 13 officers.

He recently retired as police chief for Sherwood and stepped in to fill the vacancy left by CGPD Chief Scott Shepard, who is on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. Groth was asked to step in by city manager Richard Meyers. 

Beyond the personnel issues among the department’s leadership, a video captured four officers beating a man behind downtown businesses on Sept. 1. The incident came to light when the business owner made the video available to the public. The video shows Alexander Harrelson, an unhoused man, holding his hands above his head before being beaten by Cottage Grove police officers.

Groth said that while he’s still getting up to speed on all aspects of his interim role, he said residents can rely on their public safety team – in Cottage Grove and surrounding communities.

“The working relationships amongst all agencies in this area are very strong. The message for the community is to know we have the benefit of mutual aid and neighboring agencies like (LCSO) Sheriff (Cliff) Harrold and Douglas County. We all help each other as much as we can, whenever we can,” Groth said. 

Groth sat down with The Chronicle’s Ryleigh Norgrove last week and spoke about the public concern surrounding the police department. Edited for length and clarity, here is his take on the challenges ahead of him.

Q: Are the four officers involved in the Sept. 1 incident being put on administive leave during the investigation, or are they still working? 

A: They’re still working. And that decision was made because we just didn’t believe the circumstances rose to place them on leave. That’s the decision that has to be made depending on the seriousness of the complaint or the investigation. Other times it doesn’t happen. At the sake of sounding dismissive, which is not my intent, most use-of-force reviews or complaints are pretty typical, right? I mean, officers unfortunately have to use force. So it gets reviewed all the time. And so we have to look at the specific incident and what was going on, and then make a determination if it rises to the level of grade somebody on leave. Let me stress that the investigation is still ongoing. 

After the incident on Sept. 1 with Harrelson, an internal investigation began to review the use of force, conducted by Eugene Police Sgt. Ryan Nelson. Nelson is currently serving as the interim CGPD captain following the vacancy left by CGPD Capt. Conrad Gagner, who is on administrative leave pending a separate internal investigation. In a police report obtained by The Chronicle, off-duty EPD officer Danny Lane aided the four CGPD officers in apprehending Harrelson.

Q: What is your procedure for ensuring investigations are unbiased? Do you and your team see a conflict of interest present in this investigation, why or why not? 

A: There are times when we have a complaint, and this is not limited to use of force, where we’ll have an outside agency do the investigation. Still, a majority of the complaints that I’ve had  investigated in my career are done by an internal investigator. In this circumstance, we were very fortunate in that the interim captain that we brought in also happened to be an internal affairs Sergeant with EPD, who investigates Eugene police personnel. The fact that there was an off-duty team member involved at some point is neither here nor there, because he (Nelson)  investigates EPD people all the time. And so for our purposes and it accomplishes more than what we probably would have accomplished on our own. 

The Chronicle asked the same question of the Eugene Police Department, who released this statement: “Officer Lane was responding in an off-duty capacity and is not working for CGPD. While we can’t comment on the investigation, Sgt. Nelson is a member of the Eugene Police Department Internal Affairs Office.”

Q: What are your plans to review use-of-force allegations in the future?

A: What every police department should have is a system in place where you can be aware of officers using an inordinate amount of force or are involved in a higher than normal average use of force cases. Currently, those aren’t required here by policy and they’re going to be very quickly. We’re going to do annual reviews of use of force, and we’re going to be using force reports. So those are some changes that I will be implementing very quickly. Not in response to this incident, by the way, but in response to the fact that that’s what you do in a police department. That’s what needs to happen. Then, we can use that data to ask, What kinds of forces are we using? When are we using it? Who’s using it? What are the circumstances? Where can we improve? Do we have training? Do we need to make improvements in our training? Sure, do we need to make improvements in our policy? We need to have a system that allows us to do that. And that’s what we’re going to implement.

Q: Coming to Cottage Grove with all of your years of experience in policing, is it standard to have those processes in place?

A: Let me put it this way, I’m not here to point fingers. But it’s common to find police firms in Oregon that are in need of improvements in certain areas. When I came in here, I wasn’t completely surprised. I’ve heard of these kinds of issues. I’ve seen these kinds of issues. So one of the other things that I want people to know is that during my career as chief I had the privilege of working actively with the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, going into other agencies and doing reviews of their police department and implementing practices that are industry standard. So I’m used to going into places and seeing areas where they need to make improvements. That’s part of why I like doing this and what drew me into this kind of work.

Q: Are use-of-force reports considered industry-best practice?

A: Absolutely. So are body-worn cameras. I’m dismayed that this agency doesn’t have body-worn cameras. We need to make that happen. It’s certainly not rocket science, it takes money. In the next few months, I’m going to be presenting this to the City … So when you have incidents like, on Sept. 1, and do an investigation you can capture the video and audio. It builds transparency and builds legitimacy, so everybody knows what we did, what we said, how it all worked out and what the circumstances were. They are the industry standard; that’s not to say that everybody has them, but it is to say that a lot of places have them. So we need to get the funding taken care of. And, you know, the message to the community and the businesses is, you know what, if you can afford to chip in on this, then I would love to take the donation to get the program started, because that needs to happen.

Q: Do you support a crisis operation like CAHOOTS in Cottage Grove?

A: The fact that we don’t have anything to address those street level-interactions, that’s a huge need. We’re taking the bull by the horns and I’m not aware of any conversations that have taken place previously, but we’re going to start a conversation. Because we need to do something, there’s going to be so many situations that we just don’t need to necessarily send just a police officer to. But the thing that the community needs to realize is that even after we get a program up and running there’s going to be incidents, where it’s going to need to be the police that initially show up to make sure that everybody’s safe. The unfortunate reality is there is no silver bullet. We definitely have a missing piece in that we don’t have a program that we can use to address some of these street-level challenges.

Q: Do you anticipate your team being impacted by the new homeless shelter opening on Highway 99?

A: I’ve not had the benefit and the unique experience of policing in a community that had a shelter. It’s unfortunate that we need them and that our housing crisis has become what it is. From my professional experience, I’m not foreseeing a huge impact or huge demand for service there. I think people are going to be much better off at the shelter than if there wasn’t an attempt.

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