East Precinct gets a new Portland Police Bureau Commander

Learn what challenges Commander Sara Westbrook says she sees, as she takes charge of public safety in our area …

Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Sara Westbrook comes to the job with many years of experience in a variety of divisions.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
There isn’t such a thing as “Police Commander School”, remarked Sarah Westbrook, newly-minted Portland Police Bureau Commander of East Precinct.

“Newly-minted Commander?  I like that phrase,” Sara Westbrook told East Portland News as the interview began.

“And, coming ‘up through the ranks’ is what serves as Commander School,” she added.

Westbrook’s experience is considerable, having served as a Captain at Central Precinct for two years, an afternoon shift lieutenant at Central Precinct for a year; then, as lieutenant in the Training Division and at the former Southeast Precinct.

“I also was a lieutenant at the Tactical Operations Division, where I was in charge of the Mounted Patrol, and of the K9 officers and the Rapid Response Team,” Westbrook recalled.

Commander Sara Westbrook says she enjoyed her time as a District Officer, helping keep East Portland neighborhoods safe.

And, as a District Officer, she patrolled the streets — mostly in inner Southeast Portland. “I really enjoyed it; there are people I worked with, still in the Bureau. I enjoy police work.”

Westbrook was drawn to a police job, she said. “I think the thing that I love the most is that I get an opportunity to help people. The uniform gives you the opportunity to knock on a total stranger’s door, and enter into a person’s life at an incredibly important time to them – and try to help.

“Police work isn’t just sitting back and helping passively. It’s such a participatory, active way to be in helpful in people’s lives.”

Police work has changed over the years, Westbrook conceded. “A lot of attention has now been drawn to our issues of people who are homeless, those who are mentally ill, people who are addicted – causing what police call ‘livability issues’ – leaving behind bottles, needles, and syringes. And there are issues with the mentally ill, who might be committing very low level crimes – but who are causing a disturbance and may be scaring people.”

Governmental and nonprofit social service agencies may turn a troubled individual away if they don’t fit their criteria – so dealing with them defaults to the police.

This presents critical high-level political policy questions that are yet unanswered, Westbrook said. “What role does law enforcement play? What role should we play? Is it a good idea to have police be the first-responders to people who are not committing crimes, but who are in crisis? How about those who are demonstrating unacceptable behaviors?”

Being “present” is one of the Commander’s chief responsibilities, says Sara Westbrook.

Asked about her philosophy of management as she takes charge of the about 200 sworn and non-sworn staff, Westbrook thought for a moment before answering.

“Part of my job is to ‘be present’. It’s for me to learn enough to become knowledgeable and to be aware of what’s happening here at East Precinct. To find out from the community what’s happening from their perspective. I believe that, ultimately, we as the police are here to serve the community.

“My job is to make sure that the officers have what they need to do their job. They have the knowledge, skills, and ability – but they also need to have the resources, tools, and equipment.

“They look to the Commander to set ‘boundaries’, in terms of expectations and policy. Beyond that is to believe in them, and support them in their work.”

Comments on outer East Portland issues
In outer East Portland, Westbrook said she’s paying attention to gang-related issues.

“Our officers are working proactively, and doing a good job. They work with the Gang Enforcement Team and Street Crimes Unit, especially around the 162nd Avenue and East Burnside Street corridor. They’re very creative in how they do their work. That intervention has been effective, especially when they’re partnering with people in the area that come out to help.”

The commander continued, “Our Prostitution Team has done a good job of reaching out, with enforcement efforts, along 82nd Avenue. More than just making arrests, they’re helping the women and girls into treatment for mental health, addictions, and specifically from prostitution intervention. The partnership with LifeWorks has made an impact.”

Noting that the term “community policing” has become an overused buzzword, Westbrook said it is at the core of her professional beliefs.

“We’re all on the same side. What really hurts us is if the police are seen as being on a ‘different side’ than the community. Or, if the police, themselves, start seeing themselves as being on a different side than the community.

“Community Policing” is at the core of her personal beliefs, says Commander Westbrook.

“I’m very open to being with the general public. I want to hear what’s going on in their neighborhoods, and in their communities, and how the police can help make things better.”

You can reach Commander Westbrook at (503) 823-4800. Or, e-mail her at sara.westbrook@portlandoregon.gov. If you do so, “Be kind. I am a firm believer in civility and making sure that we’re treating one another with dignity and respect. It’s what I want of all the police officers who work here. It’s what I demand of myself.”

© 2013 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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