I am a retired social worker/mental health professional who has found much good within our local police and sheriff’s departments over nearly 48 years of work in Wallowa County. I have also witnessed unjust and sometimes cruel police enforcement but that has not been the norm. Many people do not realize how many jobs law enforcement officers are asked to do. Dating back to my earliest days with the newly formed Children’s Service Division, officers often traveled with me on welfare checks. There were times I had to remove abused children from dangerous homes, was called to jail visits, tried calming people struggling with addictions, entered domestic violent homes, provided on-call hospital consults for people of all ages, traveled with officers and clients when the state hospital was in Pendleton, and sadly, went on some calls when it was too late to prevent a suicide. Most of this work was done with police back up and those silent officers helped us ALL feel safer. From my first run in 1972 with Sheriff John Duckworth, when we took a 6 year old girl burned with cigarette butts into protective custody and her father chased me with a knife... to the many trips with Sheriffs Ron Jett, Steve Rogers, Police Chief Stone, Officers Tim Johnson, Steve Oliver, Paul Pagano, Joe Reeves and many more, the officers by my side were very respectful, I hope I was respectful to them.
Of course, I am horrified by what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. As the mother of a dark skinned child, I believe I have firsthand knowledge of the systemic racism that can exist in all of us, even without our awareness. I have friends in our county who deny that racism exists here. I disagree. Racism is everywhere and in all of us until we decide to look closely at ourselves and try hard to change. Our son and grandchildren have experienced racism in our county. Other people of color have shared racist reactions from local people. When you are the mother of a handsome, dark skinned 15 year old boy and a local father of a white girl (who I had witnessed flirting with my son) calls you and says: “Keep that (n-word) away from my daughter”...you are a witness to racism.
I do not think our police officers are any more or less racist than many of us in Wallowa County. (Things are different in different places.) Nevertheless, over the years, I have noticed that our law enforcement officers have appeared to acquire a somewhat more threatening presence. Their uniforms seem more severe, they stay in their cars more, and many carry guns. Rarely do I see an officer like Tiny Johnson from the 1970s who walks around our towns and community polices. We all call 911 when we have an emergency. But we do not know who will respond or in what manner. Blue flashing lights cause our hearts to sink. This is the nature of law enforcement. It is not the job of the police to be our best buddies. In my office, I have heard from certain county family groups that just their “last name” and a long family history of problems can prompt certain officers to pull them over. Could this be an issue that needs to be addressed?
Police officers are just like us. They have strengths and weaknesses. And by their very job description....law enforcement....they have power over us. Let’s help ourselves and our officers come together to become better, more self-aware people. We are not going to increase our understanding of any race or group if we remain divided.
Judy Macuga Wandschneider lives in Joseph.