Interview With Red Wortham – Candidate For Washington County Sheriff
By Dr. Michael Steele, WashCo Dems Communications Team
WCD: What inspired you to become a candidate?
RW: I have been a leading voice for change in our criminal justice system, and although I have achieved a lot, there is more work to be done. I was inspired to run to move us forward and be the Sheriff the county deserves. I have a vision for a Sheriff’s Office that has shared goals with the community it serves.
In 18 years working in public safety in Washington County, I have overseen several programs to include alternative incarceration sentences, court security, and extraditions and transports. I have also served as the primary negotiator on our inter-agency hostage negotiations team. My degree in Social Work and Psychology has given me particular skills and knowledge in working with those who struggle with mental illness and vulnerable populations who are increasingly present in the criminal justice system.
In addition, I am a working-class candidate with lived experience as a woman of color, single mother, and foster child, giving me a unique ability to understand obstacles experienced by many people in our communities. Having been a visitor for an incarcerated family member, I understand the importance of dignity and humanity for our community members who are supporting someone in the criminal justice system.
During my time at the sheriff’s office, I have been a leading voice for change on matters of jail safety, criminal justice reform, and ways to save money while keeping public safety a priority.
As a result of my advocacy:
- Juveniles are no longer housed in the adult jail;
- We now have a collaborative effort with judges for efficient use of jail beds to reduce forced releases that are unsettling to the public;
- We had a notable reduction in costs due to how I’ve managed and scheduled our temporary deputies who fill in staffing gaps;
- Transgender inmates are treated with greater respect regarding their personal gender identity – though there is more work to do – and I will champion that continued work; and
- I became the only Washington County deputy ever certified by the Department of Justice to audit and implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act to ensure the sexual safety of incarcerated individuals, especially women;
Those are things I have achieved. But there is more work to do. This is why I’m running for Sheriff. The current Sheriff hasn’t done the work to reform our criminal justice system in ways that reduce costs and keep the public safe. In fact, it feels like we’ve gone backwards as I watch communities across this country reform their justice work in ways that balance accountability with rehabilitation to reduce crime. I’m running to move us forward and be the Sheriff the county deserves.
WCD: What kind of changes do you think are necessary to adapt to the changing demographics of Washington county?
RW: Washington County has long celebrated itself as the most diverse county in the state. In addition, the population growth has been high, closing the gap between the population of Multnomah County and Washington County, as the 2nd most populous county in the state.
With the population growth comes increased complex social problems, which must be addressed effectively and with humanity in order to ensure that livability in our county remains high. There are several problems, specific to law enforcement and the office of Sheriff I commit to addressing as the county’s next sheriff.
- Increase in crime: In districts patrolled by the sheriff’s office, there was a 49% increase in violent crime and a 14 1/2% increase in property crime since 2016. In contrast, the cities of Hillsboro and Tigard had 1% decreases while the city of Forest Grove had only a 1% increase in violent crime in the same period;
- Misuse of technology/civil rights concerns: Our sheriff’s office is using facial recognition software despite concerns about privacy and efficacy of the technology when identifying women and people of color;
- Too much focus on incarceration verses rehabilitation: Individuals who are mentally ill, homeless, or substance addicted are repeatedly charged and arrested as a way of managing their impact to community livability; and
- Lack of transparency and accountability: Transparency and accountability to the public we serve is incomplete and not interactive.
I intend to address these problems quickly in my term as sheriff. I have a plan to restructure staff that will reduce overtime spending – and keep uniformed deputies to patrols in our community rather than administrative positions. I intend on prioritizing direct involvement with our businesses and residents when we are not responding to calls for service. An increased presence in our communities is critical. I intend on prioritizing and training all deputies of the importance of community policing as our primary practice in policing.
I will discontinue the use of facial recognition until the technology is reliable and then engage in community collaboration on issues of privacy to include considering whether mugshots for those never convicted of a crime should be used for those purposes. I also intend on outfitting all of our deputies with body cameras. We currently only have about 30 deputies wearing body cameras. With the demographic quickly becoming more urban, it is vital to have clear transparency and accountability in our practices.
I will continue to be a passionate advocate for mental health, addiction treatment, and affordable housing. I intend on increasing both the current 4 positions assigned to mental health response teams and the current 4 hours per month for law enforcement homelessness outreach. These positions will collaborate with service providers to prioritize options outside of arrest when appropriate to incentivize participation in treatment, shelter placement, and hospitalization.
Finally, I commit to provide honest and complete information even when we are faced with improving in an area of service. In order to ensure equity in policing, we must first be willing to accept the possibility our practices, even unintentionally, may be differentially punitive to particular groups of people. We must be willing to accurately collect and analyze data, share results with our communities, and engage in collaborative understanding and problem solving. In police culture, there is a prevalent resistance to acknowledging a need for improvement or a less than desirable performance.
For example, when Oregon’s Criminal Justice Commission published the statistical transparency of policing report in November, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office was identified as the only agency who both disproportionately arrested and cited Hispanic and Latinx individuals. Rather than quickly explain these results away, I take this as a challenge to do a deep dive into the variables leading to these results. I embrace every opportunity to bring the goals and practices of the sheriff’s office and law enforcement in general in line with the goals of the community we serve.
WCD: What can we do here locally or in Oregon to best impact climate change in a meaningful way?
RW: Clearly for Oregon to meet its emissions reductions goals, we need to make substantial changes as a state. Here in Washington County, our legislators will need to work cohesively to educate voters on the impacts of climate change and the solutions necessary to slow the continued changes. Currently, in our region, the issue is very polarized with supporters of rural forest, trucking, and businesses dependent on heavy vehicles, resisting legislative changes which could be costly for small businesses and independent operators.
Other changes can make an impact but not to the degree that is necessary to make substantial and meaningful change in a timely way. However, I champion every effort to reduce carbon emissions from the individual to major corporations. In our region, we can incentivize home and business owners to increase use of renewable sources of electricity, modernize our electric grids, incentivize increased use of electric vehicles, and increase energy efficiency. In addition to incentivizing participation for those who can afford it, we need to create programs which will support lower income families and businesses in achieving renewable energy goals.
We also need to cap the emissions of our largest businesses to include Intel and discontinue allowances that have been permitted on emissions. We need to make sure that large businesses who are producing harmful emissions are paying steep fees to contribute to the health and environmental impacts they are having in our region.
Specifically, in the office of Sheriff, I would champion efforts within the department to make meaningful changes to reduce our climate impact. The sheriff’s office has an exemption for its vehicles which allows deputies to let vehicles run incessantly. This should only be allowed for reasons such as a K-9 vehicle due to the need to control temperature for K-9. However, we have long seen deputies inside a coffee shop with their vehicle running in the parking lot or parked in a business lot writing reports with vehicles running. I commit to ending these practices immediately.
All lighting should be converted to energy efficient models. Every new construction project should adhere strictly to energy efficiency guidelines like LEED. As our unincorporated urban areas continue to become denser, we can increase our satellite offices where we can station bicycle teams and reduce travel mileage for daily patrols. Vehicles used for training and other non patrol functions should be electric vehicles as well.
WCD: Given the recent healthcare crisis we find ourselves in, if elected, what would you do to better promote healthcare for Washington county residents?
RW: Healthcare is a critical concern, especially for vulnerable populations which are more likely to be engaged in the criminal justice system. Specifically, individuals with drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and houseless are more frequently arrested and incarcerated than other persons. These populations commonly have chronic and acute health complications.
Opiate addiction is one of the most prevalent factors I see in my work in the sheriff’s office. I have been and will continue to be a passionate advocate for mental health and addiction treatment. I support decriminalizing drug addiction for individuals. Current healthcare and substance use disorders resources are insufficient. I would like to see addictions treatment more readily accessible as well as more comprehensive health care coverage for treatment.
I would support and advocate for reducing the criminalization of user level drug charges and increased treatment. I would collaborate with treatment providers to work cooperatively when encountering individuals in crisis related to drug use. I would increase support of the drug court program with assignment of staffing resources to the drug court case load within the county.
I would also increase our jail programming to provide assistance with health care applications for individuals in jail who are set to be released. This often comes with navigating complex processes and providing verification documents that are difficult to procure. I would establish relationships with Oregon’s DMV to assist inmates in obtaining identification prior to release as well as continue and expand assistance for obtaining social security cards and birth certificates. These not only assist individuals in obtaining reliable health care but also in achieving other goals such as employment.
We currently have 4 deputies assigned to the mental health team. I would increase this notably in order to have coverage across all days and hours. These teams would be responsible for responding to calls in all jurisdictions, including cities for mental health related police calls. These teams would work collaboratively with county mental health and community partners to provide alternatives to incarceration during crisis. Incarcerating mentally ill individuals during crisis often causes additional decompensation and disrupts medication regimens.
I would also increase our homelessness outreach from the current 4 hours per month to a full time deputy. This deputy would also work collaboratively with our community partners. I would contract shelter beds for alternative placements for homeless individuals who have come to the attention of law enforcement but may not rise to the level of a need to arrest. Using arrest to manage our homeless population only further complicates their ability to qualify for housing.
WCD: As a member county of a sanctuary state, Washington County is bound by Oregon law to not cooperate with or act on behalf of ICE’s immigration enforcement. At the same time, the Washington County Sheriff’s office recently turned over immigration information related to two inmates in response to federal subpoenas, the first sanctuary-state jurisdiction to do so. How do you plan to relate to ICE, moving forward as Sheriff?
RW: Sheriffs are not above the law – and that means all of our sheriffs must follow our state’s sanctuary state laws. Additionally, over 60% of Oregon voters made their support for our sanctuary laws clear in 2018.
I am very disappointed by my opponent’s decision to comply with ICE’s administrative subpoenas. I would not have done so. It is critical our elected officials have the knowledge, courage, and fortitude to stand up for the people they serve and the laws of our state.
The rhetoric from ICE and the Trump Administration preys on public fears of safety and mischaracterizes the complex civil removal process. I will not allow this propaganda to derail the safety, diversity, and livability for residents of Washington County. I will ensure safe communities where all members feel protected and have access to law enforcement services equitably.
Further, I condemn my opponent’s practice of using public resources to collaborate with ICE on release times and coordinate transfer of custody to ICE in the jail absent any criminal matters. It is a violation of our state’s law to allow ICE into the jail, where public is not permitted, and instruct staff to turn individuals over to ICE rather than let them out when they are released. It also exposes the county to liability risk while further alienating members of the public from feeling safe to access the services of its sheriff’s office.
I will uphold Oregon’s laws and the 10th amendment. I will not cooperate with requests by ICE to circumvent our laws and interfere with the federal powers and discretion inherent in immigration investigations.
WCD: Washington County patrol and investigation teams are reportedly 89% white and 94% male. How do each of you plan to support and advance diversity in the Sheriff’s Office, particularly for officers who frequently interact with the public?
RW: In addition to those facts, the 2018 Washington County workforce report revealed hiring practices for public safety positions favor Whites over Hispanics and Blacks. This finding was statistically significant, which means not likely due to chance.
In a 2017 sheriff’s office discrimination appeal, the Washington County Civil Service Commission stated in the decision, “I am very concerned about the climate for employees in the jail system. … To be successful to have recruitment and then growing people within the department also means that we have to be able to retain them and we’re not going to retain the best if they come into an atmosphere where they do not feel supported by their peers, their subordinates and their superiors. …And I think that’s the environment that we want to work with the sheriff’s department to help you build. … but we want a workplace which helps everybody succeed.”
Recent recruitment practices attract a more diverse applicant pool. However, the workplace culture of the sheriff’s office has not comparatively improved in supporting and investing in diverse candidates for promotion, special team selections, and training. Additionally, discipline has been used disparately and indicates potential targeting of employees who have challenged culture and practices.
I will impose requirements to document warnings and objectively impose discipline to ensure equity and prevent misuse of discipline as retaliation. I will use outside raters and blind rating methods to score promotional applications. I will require tracking of training and team selections to ensure all employees receive opportunities to thrive.
When deputies are not representative of the public they serve, we lose valuable understanding of cultural nuance. We reduce our range of skills, perspectives, and insights in solving crimes. From everyday interactions with our community to extreme crisis incidents, diversity in our enforcement workforce builds trust and rapport with the public.
Learn more about Red Wortham at her campaign website.