The City Club of Central Oregon’s candidate forum for Deschutes County sheriff on Thursday showcased two law enforcement professionals with starkly different views on some of the major issues of the day — whether to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, allegations of racial bias among officers and how best to improve workforce diversity and officer morale.
Scott Schaier, a 36-year-old Bend Police officer, is challenging incumbent Shane Nelson, 50, in a nonpartisan race for a four-year term leading the 230-person Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office.
The race has attracted much attention on social media, as well as contributions from donors, Nelson so far raising $73,000 to Schaier’s $61,000.
Nelson declined a phone interview with The Bulletin.
Things got personal, with Schaier accusing Nelson of a lack of transparency and accountability and violating his own policies.
Nelson accused Schaier of showing a lack of integrity and dishonesty.
"There's a lot of reliance on rumor and innuendo and misinformation coming from a small number of former and current toxic employees," Nelson said.
Schaier is an 11-year law enforcement veteran, having worked for the Las Vegas Police Department and Bend Police Department. He called them two of the most progressive police agencies in the country and said, as he often does, he can bring the sheriff's office “into the 21st century of law enforcement” by focusing on mental and physical employee wellness, partnering with community members and adopting new technology.
Nelson has worked at the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office for 27 years and, save for a four-year stint at Oregon State University, he has lived his entire life in Central Oregon. He was appointed sheriff by the County Commission in 2015 after Larry Blanton stepped down, and he won election in 2016. His major initiatives include policing illegal marijuana grows, the sheriff's partnership with the county’s new Stabilization Center and a recently unveiled ambitious employee wellness program.
Schaier said he would push for the office to employ a mental health professional, similar to what Bend Police does. He said employee morale would improve if he, the sheriff, holds himself accountable. He was referring to a 2018 incident when Nelson initiated a pursuit with a young man on LSD that resulted in an injury to a Bend Police officer and his police dog.
Later in the debate, Nelson said he learned from the 2018 pursuit and would do some things differently today.
He said sleep is an underappreciated aspect of employee wellness. His staff is now participating in a sleep study to help determine which officers perform best in which shifts.
In terms of counseling, Nelson said he's worked to compile a list of 10 mental health professionals that his employees may choose from to receive counseling, rather than use Bend Police's approach.
"We don't want an in-house psychologist, with someone on the payroll," Nelson said. "We don't trust that option."
The candidates were asked if they feel people of color are treated differently. In response, both said they know the men and women of the sheriff's office are good officers.
"Our sheriff's office, as well as other agencies in Oregon, are ahead of the curve," Nelson said. "I have not seen any examples where anyone of color has been treated differently by our sheriff's office. We hire great ladies and gentlemen who know to treat every person with respect."
Schaier added that he knows some minorities in the community feel they are treated differently by police.
"I believe we should open dialog, having the courage and the accountability to sit down with every member of our community and listen to what they have to say," Schaier said.
Nelson defended his refusal to meet with two protest groups supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement — the Central Oregon Peacekeepers and the Central Oregon Diversity Project — because they allegedly engage in bullying and harbor anti-law enforcement views. He touted the sheriff's office collaboration with the Central Oregon Black Leaders Assembly and the Latino Community Association.
The candidates were asked about body cameras. Currently, the Redmond Police Department is the only local agency in Central Oregon that employs the technology. Nelson and Schaier are supportive of adding the cameras, saying they would aid in accountability and protect officers.
But Schaier said Nelson has been too slow in adopting it.
“It shouldn’t be taking years,” he said.
In terms of diversifying a mainly white and male workforce at the sheriff's office, Nelson said many efforts proposed by his opponent were already in place.
“I look at our staff, and I see a lot of representation,” he said.
Schaier shot back that Nelson’s office still does not have a female officer in a supervisory role.
Schaier said if elected the office would no longer assist federal immigration authorities.
Nelson and many other Oregon sheriffs currently provide federal immigration authorities with the names of foreign-born arrestees who come to the jail. Activists have criticized this practice, noting it's out of step with Oregon and Bend's "sanctuary" status.
Nelson said only about five to six inmates per year are ever picked up by immigration agents, and those cases are extreme.