Newly elected Ore. sheriff becomes 1st woman to serve in role in agency's 168-year history

Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell wants to reduce gun violence and traffic fatalities, improve school safety, use technology to keep drugs out of county jails and more

By Catalina Gaitán

MULTNOMAH COUNTY, Ore. — Multnomah County Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell, sworn in last week as the first woman to serve in the position in the agency’s 168 years, has big plans for her history-making tenure.

She wants to reduce gun violence and traffic fatalities, improve school safety, use technology to keep drugs out of county jails and partner with other agencies to help people experiencing mental-health challenges, addiction and homelessness.

The agency’s 750 employees will stay busy carrying out Morrisey O’Donnell’s priorities, which she detailed in a 15-minute interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive on Wednesday, one of several back-to-back interviews the sheriff gave in her first media blitz since her election in May.

The Oregonian/OregonLive: If you were just starting out in your career today, in 2023, would you pursue law enforcement? Why or why not?

Morrisey O’Donnell: I would, because I want to serve community. That has been something that I have always wanted to do and learned from my parents at an early age on being a servant-leader in our community.

There have been a lot of challenges, but we’re being open and connecting with community in a way that I think is really important to breaking down barriers, and working with community-based organizations and neighborhoods to really understand how we can provide the best public-safety services to each community we serve.

What do you see as the role of deputies acting as school resource officers in Multnomah County, such as at Reynolds High School?

We provide a lot of different services to community and particularly in our schools. We’re building that relationship with our youth, being a mentor and someone that our youth feel like they can trust and that they can really talk openly with. We’re doing a lot of work with the school district to ensure that we’re involving our school resource deputies in other meetings with school leadership to ensure that we’re developing those relationships, as well as working with how we get more involved in the classroom where we can where we can help educate, and really just be a mentor in the schools for our youth every day.

The sheriff’s office faced scrutiny in 2020 for its use of force on protesters near the detention center downtown, and that included deputies firing less-than-lethal projectiles. What is your stance on deputies using crowd control agents like tear gas, impact munitions or stun grenades in the future?

When we’re navigating challenging situations, we want to ensure that people are able to express their First Amendment rights in a safe way. We’re continuing to evaluate our policies and practices and getting community input when we’re reviewing those policies and practices. I think that’s critically important. But I also want to ensure that we’re focused on community safety. We work with community groups, and we’re trying to be more open and transparent with our policy process to give people an opportunity to provide feedback. And then we work to see where we can add that in our policy and ensure that we have something moving forward that keeps community safe and is within community expectations.

Would you allow deputies to use crowd control agents such as tear gas?

It really depends on each situation, when there is a community safety concern and we’re concerned about life-safety issues. I think we’re evaluating those as we move forward. It is something that is a rapidly evolving situation, so we’ll continue to evaluate our policies and practices. But each situation could drive different decisions.

There’s a new trend for smuggling drugs into jails where people are mailing paper coated with liquid drugs. A recent report also said adults in custody are willing to take this risk now that drug possession has been decriminalized for personal use. Can you tell me about this trend? And what is your response to the idea that drug decriminalization is making it harder to stop the flow of drugs into jails?

We’re always looking at where we can reduce contraband in our jail facilities, because that changes over time. We’re working collaboratively with our corrections-health and public-health partners to ensure that we have strategies in place to help people with treatment opportunities, as well as identifying if that may be a situation when someone is booked into our corrections facility. And we’re also looking at technology we use and researching technology solutions that would be able to identify those types of substances before they enter into our facilities.

How will you measure your own success in this job?

Part of that is really looking at community expectations, engaging with community and listening and hearing from community on where we can do better and where we can support public safety and each community we serve, and to really look at their unique needs.

I also look at ensuring that we are connecting with our staff – connecting with people doing the work each and every day and hearing from folks on how we can do this work differently and better together. I really want open and honest communication to ensure that people feel comfortable bringing those challenges to my attention so we can build collaborative strategies together.

How will you use data to strategize and measure your success?

We’re continuing to evaluate data. We have robust data systems in place that help us determine if what we’re putting in place is making a positive difference, so really relying on our data team to ensure that we’re meeting regularly and that I’m giving guidance to our staff on how we’re doing as a team and how I can help support their work.

We’re looking at where we are seeing violence in our community. Decreases in gun violence are going to be something that we’re looking at, and traffic fatalities and injuries. We’re looking at how we measure what is actually happening in our community. And that really helps us develop the most appropriate strategies to address community violence and to address what each community is seeing.

How will you measure the success of the sheriff’s office as a whole?

The success of the sheriff’s office really is about how I am leading and guiding our workforce to put their best foot forward for community and how we really build these solutions together. It is a matter of leading an agency into success, which also helps measure how I am doing.

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