A man with a vision: Rick Lewis set to retire as Silverton police chief

June 2012 Posted in Community, People

By Brenna Wiegand

Rick Lewis puts the same care and attention to detail into whatever he does, whether tying an intricate fishing fly or ensuring Silverton’s transition to a new police chief is as seamless as possible.

Lewis, Silverton’s police chief since 1998, retires Aug. 2.

For 28 of his 39 years in law enforcement Lewis has been a chief. Now he is the senior-most chief in Oregon.

When he graduated from high school in Sheridan, Wyo., Lewis didn’t have a clue about what to do with his life. His father, Gene, suggested military service.

Rick Lewis said his father told him the military would give him time to think about what he wanted to do. Gene Lewis, who died in 2003, spent his career in the military, retiring from the National Guard as a Command Sgt. Major.

Taking his father’s advice, Lewis spent three years as a sergeant in a surface-to-surface missile unit with nuclear capability, mostly stationed in Germany

When he came home and entered college in 1971, Lewis thought he would become an aeronautical engineer. A calculus class prompted him to change his mind. He pursued an arts and sciences degree with an emphasis on political science, graduating from junior college with an honors scholarship.

He moved to Laramie to attend the University of Wyoming, and there he earned a degree in criminal justice while working for the police force.

“I really fell in love with law enforcement once I started it,” Lewis said.

His first arrest was a whopper. He was working a graveyard wshift hen he saw a car sitting through a couple of traffic light changes. He noticed a woman sitting in the car, staring straight ahead like she was frozen. Noticing a shadow in the passenger seat, Lewis pulled his car around the corner, saw the passenger door open and a man take off running.

“The lady was screaming at me that he had kidnapped and tried to rape her as the suspect ran behind a service station,” Lewis said. “I chased him down an alley in the car and he jumped behind one of those mobile tire racks. I didn’t know what the heck I had so I put the front bumper up against the tires and pushed just enough to pin him there. He’d thrown a knife, which was trapped beneath the patrol car. It turned out he was an escapee from North Carolina.”

After two years with the Laramie Police, Lewis joined the Gillette (Wyo.) Police Department. Booming business in the area’s  coal mines exploded the population from 3,500 to 40,000 in the span of about 20 years, making the job challenging. Lewis, one of the few officers with a college degree, moved up the ranks quickly.

“There wasn’t enough room for the workers’ families,” he said. “There were a lot of bar fights and lots of drug activity. Gillette had a higher number of homicides than any other place I’ve worked.”

Lewis worked some major drug cases, including a three-month sting that crossed state lines and resulted in 80 criminal charges.

At 26, Lewis became the lieutenant in charge of criminal investigations in Gillette and started teaching criminal justice classes at the local community college.

When he started police work, some of his fellow officers were Korean War veterans.

“At that time, if you could find a military veteran that had just come out of the service and wanted to be a police officer, you grabbed him as quick as you could,” Lewis said. “You needed big, husky, physically fit people to be able to handle all the kinds of stuff that happened in those days.”

And, he said, they knew how to take orders.

“We didn’t have computers in the cars or even portable radios; we typed all of our reports on an old typewriter, and there was no such thing as overtime,” he said. “You couldn’t run a registration check on a car and get an immediate response, though everybody thought it was really cool there was this new thing called the National Crime Information Center (launched in 1967).

“It was so cool because you could drive into a parking lot at a motel at the start of your shift and run plates — and eight hours later you’d have an answer back. If you ran the plate on a moving car, by the time you got the answer back, it was long gone. Now it takes 10 seconds or less.”

Back then, Lewis said, officers still were grumbling about the 1966 Supreme Court Miranda decision which required advising suspects of their rights. Many said it would prevent them from doing their job. The ruling came as the first of two groundbreaking movements in law enforcement, and the shift toward greater professionalism began to emerge.

There were several intense cases in Gillette, including what appeared to be an execution-style murder. Percy Foreman, best known for defending James Earl Ray in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. murder case, was there for the defense.

“He came all the way from Houston to represent the client that I had arrested,” said Lewis, adding Foreman did so as a favor to the suspect’s mother, who had worked for him years before.

“The county attorney was scared to death. Foreman ended up pleading his client guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter because we couldn’t prove that it was actually murder, though the victim was on his knees at the time.

“When I had coffee with him afterward, he told me that was the first time in 50 years as a defense attorney that he had ever had a cup of coffee with a police officer.”

After visiting his brother in Sisters, Lewis decided to head west. He took a job as sergeant in Umatilla in 1984 before getting his first chief position in Union two years later. He proceeded to chief of the Bandon department, where he embraced the second paradigm shift in policing, a “community policing” philosophy. Under Lewis’ leadership in the early 1990s, the Bandon force sponsored Oregon’s first community policing team training, bringing citizens and stakeholders into the criminal justice process.

“Before community policing, police didn’t involve themselves in trying to get to the roots of problems that tend to draw people into criminal activity,” Lewis said. “Now we have partnerships with Silverton Together, the school district, the hospital and the business community where you can draw on resources to solve community problems.”

Lewis brought that passion to Silverton when he was hired as chief in 1998. The City Council pledged the resources to develop a citywide philosophy of community policing, something Lewis considers an integral part of community-oriented city government.

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Grant and city funds paid for a number of programs for school-age children. This year’s budget curtailed what Lewis considers the best tool, the school resource officer. Terry Murphy was the SRO at Mark Twain Middle School years before moving to the high school two years ago.

Much as he loved his job, Lewis was feeling a little burned out by 2004-05 when he was invited to spend six months in Iraq training Iraqi nationals for police duty. Many of his students had been tortured under Saddam Hussein’s rule. The trip was an eye-opener.

“I probably would have retired in ’05 or ’06 if I hadn’t taken that time to go over there and do something different,” Lewis said. “You come back and you have this realization that the things you take for granted every day and the freedoms we have are the things that they’re fighting and dying for – and in some cases never had. It was a great experience for me.”

The trip also allowed then-Sgt. Jeff Fossholm the opportunity to be the interim chief in Silverton.

“When I got back, I sent him to the FBI National Academy, which is a three-month very intense law enforcement administration program,” Lewis said. “He is a national academy graduate which is very prestigious in the law enforcement profession.”

While Lewis served as pro-tem city manager for six months last year, Fossholm took on more duties, including working on the budget. Fossholm will be sworn in as Silverton’s police chief in August.

“I have a great deal of respect for Jeff and his abilities,” Lewis said of the 25-year department veteran with deep family roots in the area.  “He’s worked his way up through the ranks. He was a sergeant when I first came here and I promoted him to captain a few years ago and he’s just invaluable to me as second in command.”

A smooth transition is something Lewis wanted for the department and the community.

“I never had a mentor when I started,” he said. “In Bandon I stepped in when they fired the former chief. Silverton had gone through some turmoil and had an interim chief when I came here as well. With Jeff I was able to start thinking more globally about the community and provide him the experience so that when he steps into that position, he’s already done it.”

Fossholm says Lewis will be missed.

“He has done an excellent job serving the citizens of Silverton,” Fossholm said. “Rick implemented community policing for Silverton and has shown himself a proven leader and a mentor. He has continued to be involved with numerous groups and organizations.”

“In a world where we hear about leaders who come and go and fall and fail, Rick has demonstrated integrity and steady leadership throughout his career,” said Kevin Campbell, executive director of the Oregon Association of Police Chiefs. “He is finishing well, and that’s something we should all celebrate.”

“I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to serve the community for the past 15 years and also to the elected officials and city managers – past and present – for their support of both me and the department,” Lewis said. “It has been a pleasure to serve.”

Lewis is even more thankful for a family “that weathered all of the tough years when I was never around. This career would have been impossible without their support and love.”

He and his wife Pat look forward to camping, fishing and, if gas prices go down, some travel. He also plans to continue to train law enforcement leaders.

“As long as you’ve got retiring police chiefs that have some knowledge and experience they can pass on, I think it would be a travesty not to do that to some extent,” Lewis said. “But at this point I don’t want to be all that busy.”

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