SUNRIVER — It’s been a little more than a year since Marc Mills headed to Sunriver for his first day on the job as interim police chief, and promptly got lost trying to find the police station.
Though he’s yet to commit every one of Sunriver’s winding roads and hundreds of cul-de-sacs to memory — to say nothing of the 30 miles of bike paths — Mills has been venturing out to all corners of the 3,300-acre community on a regular basis to boost the department’s profile. Since he took over, Mills and his officers have been giving presentations to community groups, joining in on litter pick-ups and a few more unorthodox forms of outreach, like the time Mills visited a resident’s home to help reprogram a cordless phone.
After 35 years with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, Mills now oversees eight officers, two sergeants, and six to eight summertime bike patrollers in a community that’s had little to no significant crime for several years. Just the same, he’s committed himself to seeing that his officers are ready for anything.
“The men and women here in this police department have the potential to be the best, and I’m gonna help them get there,” he said.
Mills stepped into his position during a challenging period for the small department. In February 2012, the board of the Sunriver Service District abruptly fired Chief Michael Kennedy, a 22-year veteran of the department who had served as chief since 1999, claiming he was falling short of their expectation that he engage with local residents and businesses. Mills, at the time a captain with the sheriff’s office, was tapped to serve as interim chief.
Three months later, at the conclusion of a search for a permanent chief, the service district board decided Mills should stay on the job. Kennedy subsequently sued the service district, and while a federal judge threw out portions of the suit, it has not yet been resolved.
Jim Wilson, chairman of the service district, said he’s noticed a difference in the way officers interact with both residents and visitors since Mills became chief. Wilson recalled an evening last summer when a man staying at the house next door to his turned up on his front steps. The man introduced himself and gave Wilson his phone number in the event things next door got too loud, and even gave Wilson a bottle of wine the next day.
A few days later, Wilson learned the guests next door had been visited by Sunriver officers before the man came by to introduce himself as part of an effort Mills had launched to engage with property management companies in the area. Now, it’s routine for larger groups of vacationers to get a visit from police reminding them not to disrupt the lives of permanent residents and others around them.
“It’s been absolutely spectacular, its a great situation,” Wilson said.
Bill Peck, general manager of the Sunriver Owners’ Association, said the owners’ relationship with the police department has “improved immensely” since Mills took over as chief.
Though Sunriver’s full-time population is less than 2,000, the area swells to close to 20,000 at the height of summer. Tourist season presents potential friction, Mills said, between residents who like their peace and quiet and tourists looking to have a good time, and also stretches the department resources.
The summer bike patrol has traditionally been the means by which Sunriver boosts its police presence during the tourist season. Since stepping in as chief, Mills has retooled the bike patrol, reversing a long-standing policy of measuring the patrollers’ performance by how many miles they log each day. Mills has also discouraged officers from hiding out near the many tunnels on the bike path system, where riders who disregarded signs advising them to walk their bikes through the tunnels were often ticketed.
Instead, Mills has urged the bike patrollers to slow down, offer their services to any visitors who appear lost, or just engage people in conversation.
“When you come back in, I’m not interested in how tired your body is or how worn your tires are,” he said. “I want your lips, your mouth, your tongue worn out from talking to people.”
Mills said as much as he’s enjoyed the challenges of his new job, he does miss some of the excitement that came with major crimes investigations and heading up the county search and rescue division for several years.
“I miss that piece, but coming to a small department takes me back to when I first started, because the sheriff’s department wasn’t a lot bigger than we are here,” he said. “It takes me back to the mid-’70s of Deschutes County — but I know a lot more, a tremendous amount more.”
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