An evening on patrol: ‘Sergeant #1’ protects East Portland

While it wasn’t originally her first vocational choice, see why this Portland Police Bureau sergeant says she’s proud of her career …

At an outer East Portland crime scene near the Springwater Trail, Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Sergeant Debbie Steigleder speaks with another sergeant.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

With the retirement of Portland Police Bureau Sergeant John Anderson not long ago, the title of the Bureau’s “Sergeant #1” was passed on to Deborah “Debbie” Steigleder, who serves districts in East Precinct.

“This doesn’t mean that I’m the oldest by age,” Steigleder pointed out, “It means that I’m now the most senior sergeant in the entire Police Bureau right now.”

Trained first as a paramedic, Steigleder looked into becoming a firefighter. “But, back in the late 1980s, women were not typically in the fire services yet. For me it seemed the next best thing was to be in law enforcement. That turned out to be a great fit for me.”

During a “ride-along” tour of East Portland, Steigleder told East Portland News that she joined PPB in September of 1989.

“What interested me in police work, as with most police officers, is that I didn’t want a job where I would go in to an office, sit at a desk, and do the same thing, day in and day out. I love that I come to work, and I never know at the beginning of the shift what it will hold for me. That’s one of the best parts of the job.”

Steigleder also is drawn to the personality trait of “multitasking”. “Officers need to be able to have a good capacity for split attention – listening to the police radio, watching on what’s going outside, and responding to the ‘Mobile Data Terminal’, all at the same time.”

In the Bureau, a sergeant serves as a “shift and patrol supervisor”, in charge of the day-to-today working on scheduling, assigning officers to districts, and also tactical supervision of a major incident.

In Woodstock, Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Sergeant Debbie Steigleder stretches her legs, before resuming her patrol.

Reduced staff levels raises concerns
Recently, Daryl Turner, the president of the Portland Police Association – the union that represents officers and sergeants – decried the PPB’s low staffing levels, which is partly due to retirements, and also due to lags in hiring new officers to bolster the ranks of cops on the street.

Steigleder said that the current staffing level affects sergeants, making it more difficult to fill the shifts that need to be covered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“Instead of having a supervisory and training role, reviewing the activity on our shift, on many occasions we become the ‘second responding officer’, providing ‘cover’ for other officers. On calls that require a minimum of two officers to respond, we go out to ‘cover’ another officer as an officer, not as a sergeant.”

And, because the district officers are sometimes stretched thinly across districts – when many units are called to major event, for example – “It gives them pause when they consider stopping to talk with someone [who attracts their attention], when they realize that cover is not readily available.

“So, some things that should be addressed are perhaps not being addressed at that time, because it could be a safety issue for the officer,” Steigleder added.

During her shift in our ride-along, Steigleder cruises the precinct, from the Woodstock neighborhood on the west, out to the Centennial neighborhood on the east, and all areas in between.

Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Sergeant Debbie Steigleder checks her Mobile Data Terminal for calls going on in the district.

One of the big categories of calls this year in outer East Portland, Steigleder said, is gang-related crime activities. “Fortunately, the PPB Gang Response Team has increased in size; they are very active here right now. I am hoping that that has an effect.

“Gang violence, and being associated violence, is something that ebbs and flows,” Steigleder said. “We’re hoping it’s down in July, considering the activity that took place in June this year.”

In addition to gang-related issues, Steigleder said there are continuing problems dealing with transients. “We have a lot of homeless camps along the Springwater Trail. I think for the most part, the areas with homeless are okay, if you’re there during the day. At night, it can get a little scary to go in there.”

Some of the campers are down on their luck, are mentally ill, or don’t want to conform to society’s norms, Steigleder mused. “There are also a lot of criminals hiding out in the camps. We know that these people are contributing to quality-of-life crimes, like burglaries and car prowls at homes and businesses along the trail.

“And, in addition to being unsightly,” Steigleder went on, “the conditions at many of the camps are unsanitary and unsafe.”

Otherwise, they officers spend their time tending to major motor vehicle accidents, robberies, fights, and domestic disputes. “I don’t see a huge increase in those; this category of calls seems to be holding fairly steady.”

Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Sergeant Debbie Steigleder discusses a situation with a district officer.

Mentally ill causes challenges
Responding to calls related to behavior of the mentally ill has dramatically changed police work, Steigleder said. “Twenty years ago, it would have been unusual to go on a call about an individual ‘in crisis’ even once a week. And now, we’re getting multiple calls like that every day. And, there aren’t the resources there for them.

“Clinics and hospitals frequently use law enforcement to shuttle mentally ill patients – each saying the patient doesn’t meet their criteria,” Steigleder said. “It takes a significant amount of time to deal with these calls. If somebody’s feeling suicidal, such as when someone hasn’t taken their medications, they call the police. If a 90-year-old patient in a care home is getting agitated, they call the police.

“Yet, there are few resources available to the Bureau, and to the community,” Steigleder said.

“If someone is behaving dangerously to themselves or others, we can take them to the hospital, admitting them on a “psychological hold” – but they can be out again in two hours, and we’re dealing with the situation again.”

Steigleder recalled a recent incident in Beaverton in which a police officer was shot. “It doesn’t make any difference if this person was involved in criminal activity, or involved a mental crisis, the officer was still shot. This is partly why being an officer is much more dangerous than it was in the past.”

Passing on her experience
In addition to being a shift supervisor, Steigleder also teaches Critical Incident Management at the Portland Police Bureau Sergeants Academy.

“Along with SERT Sergeant Tom Forsythe, we help those coming up in the ranks learn from our experiences.”

The situation she next discusses is one she supervised the evening of February 6, 2013 in the Foster-Powell neighborhood on SE 65th Avenue at SE Holgate Boulevard.

> To read our coverage of this story as it unfolded, CLICK HERE.

This was a situation in which a woman in the house said the suspect had access to a handgun in the house and he was ‘out of control’, trying to break down a door, Steigleder recalled. “As the sergeant on duty, I supervised the situation, including the decision to call in SERT to end the 90-minute standoff.

“In these classes, we teaching new sergeants, based on our experience, what worked and what didn’t. For every incident, there is something that can be used to help make decisions in the future.”

A safe place to live
Thinking about our conversation, Steigleder she didn’t want to leave the impression that we live in a dangerous metropolis.

“Portland is generally a safe city, a very safe city,” Steigleder said.

“It’s not like Chicago, or Detroit, where you have huge areas that you definitely don’t want to go into. There’s nothing like that in Portland.”

On their way to a potential domestic dispute, Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Sergeant Debbie Steigleder checks in with a district officer.

It’s the officers she’ll miss
As she thinks about retirement within a year, Steigleder said there are certain aspects of the job that she will miss.

“What I will miss most is the people I work with. You’ll not find a better group of people than those that I work with in the Bureau. They don’t exist anyplace, anywhere,” Sergeant #1 said. “Portland has some of the most incredible officers who, shift-after-shift, go out up against sometimes insurmountable odds.

“They still do the job every day, and enjoy what they do, as they serve the citizens of our city,” Steigleder concluded. “They work hard, to do the job right, every day, every shift.”

© 2015 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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