New police column in SR — Street Blues: Black and white to gray

Editor’s note: Street Roots welcomes Officer Robert Pickett to our line of diverse columnists. Picket offers a fresh perspective from the view of a police officer working directly with our streets. We hope readers will gain a new understanding of the complex interaction betweeen homelessness, public safety and law enforcement that occurs daily in Portland.

I gotta drink or I’ll be sick!”

It was 9:30 a.m. and Mr. Hendricks was already halfway through a six-pack.  I’d found him under the Morrison Bridge approach in the inner southeast industrial district, and he fit perfectly the description of someone who had just committed a “beer run” from a nearby convenience store. His frank admission about why he stole the beer summed up the complex situation brilliantly.

Mr. Hendricks had been a frequent consumer of police services in this area over the past month.   Passersby had been calling often about the tall, dark-haired gentleman who was often staggering in traffic or dropping his pants to pee in full view of Portland’s public.  Convenience stores had also been calling about their escaping beer. I’d personally dealt with him a number of times, as had other officers in the district. Our solution was often to call Hooper Detox, which would dispatch a van to come and take him to the drunk tank for a few hours. Detox staff would sometimes check his blood alcohol level with a portable breathalyzer, so I knew that Mr. Hendricks’ baseline BAC was a number that would probably leave me unconscious, or at best praying to the porcelain god. He’d developed such a tolerance that he was almost fully functional at that level. Unfortunately if he let it drop too far below that, his body would begin going through withdrawal — sickening, possibly deadly, if not monitored carefully.  Living outside, without any income, Mr. Hendricks did the only thing he could think of to get the medicine he needed — he stole it.

Clearly, one of my jobs is to enforce criminal laws, but do I arrest him for this? Do I simply arrange another trip to detox with the knowledge that he’ll be out stealing more beer before the end of the day?  What do I tell the convenience store clerk who keeps watching his beer walk out of the store? I’d previously referred him to the county’s in-patient sobering program, but there is a waitlist for that service, and it takes persistence and initiative from the patient, something that Mr. Hendricks had not shown thus far.

This was not the sort of gray-area scenario I expected when first considering a police career.

Popular culture shows officers tracking down the most heinous of criminals, cleverly catching them in the act or eliciting a full confession afterward, followed by the satisfying and finalizing click of handcuffs being applied.  A clear bad guy caught and put away where no more harm can be done.  Case closed.

Such was certainly my image of policing back in high school, when my parents say I first spoke of becoming a cop. Growing up in a medium-sized town in Indiana, I wasn’t exposed to much of society’s ills. I played soccer and had a paper route. I was a Boy Scout, for goodness sake. I wouldn’t describe our family as rich, but we were never lacking, and my parents are together to this day.  The couple of times I saw my parents drink alcohol in 18 years were wine at dinner parties.

My innocent upbringing continued at an idyllic, liberal-arts college in rural Minnesota, where I studied nitty-gritty, practical stuff like political philosophy and Japanese. After graduation I needed to explore a little, and went to Japan where I worked as an English teacher in public schools.  It was during these four years in Japan, followed by a year of backpacking and motorcycling in Asia and Europe that I got a taste for other ways of living, including exposure to real poverty.

It wasn’t until becoming an officer in 2002, however, that I started to learn about the challenges facing my own culture. As someone usually called at last resort to patch society’s breakdowns, I began a lengthy course of study in what ails us.  And while still not an expert on any of them, I’ve learned a lot about poverty, addiction, violence, politics, homelessness, race, bureaucracy, mental illness, social services, the law, the media, the police.

I’ve also learned that each individual person I’m called to, or stumble across, is usually receiving my services because of a lengthy string of failures, personal and/or societal, that occurred way before I entered the story. I try my best to make a sound decision while surrounded by this miasma of gray, but being human, certainly I sometimes add to this string.

It turns out that Mr. Hendricks could have been even more succinct.

“It’s complicated,” would have said it all.

10 responses to “New police column in SR — Street Blues: Black and white to gray

  1. Great article. Thanks for taking on Street Roots Newspaper and for contributing your perspective. When those in law enforcement can offer their perspective and opinions on the reality of working as police officer’s, and are willing to explore the details of these very issues; such as poverty, addiction, homelessness, all those who read their articles or essays have gained something extremely valuable. Thanks so much Officer Picket!

  2. I am really excited about this column, thanks to Street Roots and Officer Pickett for providing a space to share this perspective. Many of our shelters require that residents maintain a clean/sober state while they are in shelter, and this unfortunately leaves folks like Mr. Hendrix without many options. I appreciate thoughtful policing that considers these complications in their work.

  3. Your thoughtful policing is greatly appreciated. We will continue to check in on the thoughts you share from your unique perspective. I believe something so open and authentic about police work can lead to great progress in making the officer/civilian relations more humane.

  4. Kudos on painting a micro-narrative that is usually ignored for the perceived glamor of the macro one. Thanks for giving us a glimpse, of a moment, in a day that requires more insightful wisdom than I have to execute in a week.

  5. Jason Zimmerman

    Great report, Officer Pickett! I look forward to more thoughtful insights into the gray areas of your job on the streets of Portland.

  6. Thanks for doing this. It is great to have a thoughtful voice. I am glad you are in our neighborhood.

  7. Wow, Thanks for bringing this type of issue to light and for your openmindedness in the matter. This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the complexity of effective human services. Underneath Mr. Hendricks’ alcoholism, (and resulting behaviors) is the real Mr. Hendricks, who is likely to be a good guy with goals and passions and the capability of achieving them. Motivating him and those like him to want to change is obviously the difficult part. In my opinion, hope, encouragment, and inspiration are likely to be more effective than any draconian solution such as hammering him with criminalization, jail, humiliation, and rejection. (barring any serious or victimizing offenses of course). No doubt, its a frustrating and thought provoking issue. Thanks again.

  8. Very thoughtful article. I particularly enjoyed that while the liberal arts education and traveling abroad may have opened your eyes, policing forced you to use them.

    It’s one thing to recognize gray areas in homelessness. Most people do. It’s another to have to address it each day. At that point, you can’t just take both sides.

  9. Yeah I have to say your article was extremely well written and really brought out several dilemmas, including the dilemma that police officers have.

    I think it is getting more complicated because of the economy and also new social forces within the homeless. No longer “classic” now we have lawyers, CGI artists, ministers, teachers, writers and a host of other educated professionals on the street as well as the rise of homeless “gangs” that prey on other homeless people.

    I am new to Portland, but am encouraged by so many organizations trying hard to NOT look away…and to not be ruled by cynicism. Your article goes a long way in contributing to the overall dialogue. I am in a 90 day program at City Team…and it is going to give me ample opportunity to get OFF the streets.

    Some people really want to be there. So be it; but many more do not.
    For my part, I hope to continue to volunteer after I make a recovery, and I look upon the homeless now as not someone else’s problem but all of our burden to try and help. I have deeply appreciate the help I have received. If not for it, you and I Officer Pickett might have met under less favorable circumstances (for me).

    Keep up the great work.

  10. Great atricle, thank you again for writing.

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