New Police Bureau commander brings a world of experience to East Portland post

Although Portland is the only city where Commander Lee has been a cop, you’ll be amazed to discover what he found out while helping police recruits in the Middle East “learn the basics” …

Incoming Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Michael Lee says he looks forward to working with people in East Portland.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
With the retirement of Portland Police Bureau’s Commander Bill Walker, East Precinct’s new “top cop” is now Commander Michael Lee.

Although he’s been in Portland for 22 years, Commander Lee speaks with a slight drawl that explains why blue-and-white University of Kentucky Wildcats memorabilia adorns the bulletin board behind his deck.

Talking about his background, Lee began, “I went to college for about 3 ½ years, but didn’t really know what I wanted to do – so why continue there? My family was aghast when I joined the Army. But, I did very well there; attended Officer Candidate School, and got out as a captain.

“The reason I got out of the military was because I’ve got three daughters and they were approaching school age,” Lee continued. “Some kids adopt better than others to the constantly-changing [military family] environment. I didn’t want to take that risk with my children.

“Although I’m originally from the Tennessee and Kentucky area, my wife is from here – the Pacific Northwest. We decided to move to Portland.”

Police work holds his fascination
“Growing up, my next-door neighbor was a state police officer. He was always as nice as could be – out helping people. I’ve always been fascinated with police work; and it seemed to be the way to continue to being of service to my country, and my community.

“It has structure – you work with like-minded people who are of a high moral fiber and integrity…the kind of things that I was raised with, and grew up with.”

When he moved to Portland in 1989, Lee said that he applied at the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), as well as with Washington County and Clackamas County. When Washington County offered a job, he checked back with the Portland Police. “I really wanted to work with the Portland Police Bureau, and they offered me the job. So, in July of 1989, I became a Portland police officer.”

Lee was assigned to North Precinct as patrol officer. “It was active out there. It’s where, young cops would say, lots of stuff’s going on. I had several partners, including [now] Public Information Officer Lt. Robert King.”

Looking back over the years, Lee pointed out, “Police work doesn’t change very much. Sometimes you see limiting factors having to do court decisions. And you do get the benefits of improving technology. We adjust, we go out there and try to help people. That’s what we are here for.”

After working in North Precinct, Lee said he was downtown and patrolled the Old Town area before becoming a sergeant moving to Southeast Precinct in 2000. “I moved to work downtown with the anti-war demonstrations in 2003. From there I went to the Training Division.”

Community Policing in a nutshell
Because the Portland Police Bureau was instituting “Community Policing” when he joined the force, it seems a natural concept to him, Lee said.

“My philosophies and those of Community Policing parallel each other,” Lee said. “Community Policing, in a nutshell, is that police and the folks who live in the neighborhoods work together toward a common goal of improving neighborhood livability, leading to people feeling safe in their own homes.

“It comes about through communication, interaction, and willingness – on both sides – to participate.”

New East Precinct Commander Lee looks abstractly down as his desk, as he recalls the police training he participated in, in the Middle East.

Trained police officers – in Baghdad
In 2004 Lee took leave to teach basic police curriculum and officer safety and skills courses to the Iraqi police force. “I worked in Baghdad for a while, and then went up to Kurdistan, and worked with the Kurds as well.

“It was a phenomenal experience. You’re working in an environment that’s about as unsafe as can be, with daily shootings, mortars, and gunfights, going on all around the places where I worked.

“But the work was extremely rewarding, because you’re dealing with folks who didn’t get much training, and didn’t get much equipment. We helped them with the equipment they had, using the curriculum to teach basic fundamental, and skill sets of survival and officer safety.

“It’s unimaginable to realize the peril those folks place themselves in on a daily basis, in an environment where you can’t tell who the bad guys are at any given time. Anyone can walk in anytime, and detonate an explosive device because of ideological differences and beliefs.

“I made some lifelong friends, and I still stay in touch with them. But, others I knew there have been killed. It gives you a huge appreciation for how good we have it here.”

From dodging bullets to filling filing cabinets
Not log after his return to Portland, Lee said, he became a lieutenant in charge of shifts in Central Precinct and in the Homicide Division. “I got promoted to the rank of Captain, and got put in the Records Division, and I worked there for a year before being promoted to East Precinct Commander.”

Although some might have visions of acres of dusty filing cabinets, Lee said he considered his assignment to the Bureau’s Record Division to be a “unique opportunity. A lot of good people are working there – it’s a 24/7 operation. Without them, our operations would come to a grinding halt.”

Commander Lee stands spends a moment with Sgt. Wendi Steinbronn.

A ‘five-aspect manager’
“The people in the precinct don’t work for me – we work for each other.

“I believe that everybody inherently wants to do a great job. Some people are better skilled than others. I encourage our folks to share their knowledge and skills. The Bureau is a team environment.

“Some people walk into a commander’s position with giant detailed outlines of expectations. Mine are pretty simple; basically, five things: Don’t lie, be on time, give 40 good hours of work a week, don’t make the same character mistake twice – and, if you have a problem with me, I don’t want to read about it in the paper or hear about it in the locker room – come talk to me.

“Most of this can be attributed to Dusty Baker Jr. (former player and current manager in Major League Baseball of the Cincinnati Reds). [Whether] managing professional ballplayers, or cops, it’s about working with people to get them to do the job.

“Success is not measured by anything other than how the community feels about its police force.  If we’re doing our job out here, and the majority of the community is giving you thumbs-up when you walk by or when you ask how they’re doing – then we are doing our job.”

Dedicated to helping Portlanders
“If I can help one person every day feel better about their situation, or help them in their life, I feel I’ve done my job. I was told this by an older officer early on, and believe it’s true; that’s what I’ve done throughout my career.

“But, ‘help’ comes in all fashions. Some people need a pat on the back – and some people need to go to jail! In our society, a small percentage of people engage in behavior that is unacceptable. That’s why we are here – to shield the remainder of the folks who want to go about their lives, have their families grow, and feel safe in their own homes.

“Nonetheless, in the end, it’s about treating people with respect.”

Commander Lee concluded by saying he looks forward to meeting East Portlanders at the monthly Citizens Advisory Group meetings, or one-on-one. You can reach him at East Precinct: (503) 823-4800.

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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