UMATILLA COUNTY — As hundreds of Umatilla County residents in recent weeks have joined the thousands of Americans throughout the nation who are protesting systemic racism, specifically within law enforcement, the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners concluded its Wednesday, June 17, meeting by unanimously adopting an order proclaiming its support for local police.
The order, without directly mentioning his name, comes more than three weeks after George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes as three other officers stood by, subsequently sparking mass protests.
“The Umatilla County Board of Commissioners strongly objects to the horrific act that took place in the City of Minneapolis ... at the same time, we are also troubled by a movement across the country to disregard and disrespect the 800,000 sworn officers who have taken an oath to protect the citizenry and preserve the peace,” the order stated.
Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer, who previously served as a dispatcher in the sheriff’s office, said the commissioners discussed the order among themselves and felt it was necessary because the movement’s focus on the institution of policing has unfairly lumped all police officers together.
“It bothers me that law enforcement as a whole is being painted with the same brush,” he said. “And it’s interesting to me that the actions of one or two are affecting the attitudes for everyone. I know some of those guys so well, and I know for certain that no way would they ever do anything like what we saw in Minneapolis.”
By protesting the system of law enforcement, he said, the current movement is being disrespectful by not accounting for the motivations of police officers.
“So many of the people that I know of got into the profession in the first place to help people,” Shafer said. “These people are having the worst day of their lives, and they turn to these professionals ... that’s why they chose that profession. And now for them to be chastised for that decision — it makes me sick.”
In a letter dated June 9 that he said was sent to all local law enforcement agencies in the county, Shafer detailed his support for local police during their “dark days” and condemned discussions of defunding police departments and directing funds to other social services as “horrifying” and “unconscionable.”
Despite systemic racism and ideas of defunding police departments being at least a part of what compelled more than 100 local residents to march to and take a knee on the lawn of the Umatilla County Courthouse in Pendleton a few weekends ago, after the order was adopted, Commissioner Bill Elfering said he was uncertain about the local presence of systemic racism.
“I’ve heard so many comments made regarding systemic racism, which I’ve done some reading on and I don’t think we have much of it here of a systemic-type nature,” he said. “I’ve written back to some people who have commented on it, and I’d sure like to know more about some viewpoints of what it looks like in Umatilla County. It’s just one of those things, if we have it, it’s not come to the attention of the commissioners.”
Elfering clarified later on June 17 that he’s seen examples of racial prejudice locally, but has spent nearly his entire life in Eastern Oregon and areas with relatively small Black populations, so he’s been reading news reports and watching national news outlets to educate himself about the concept of systemic racism.
“I just don’t have a feel for what the discussion is,” he said. “To me, a person’s skin has never been a fact. The color of it didn’t matter.”
But before joining with Shafer and Commissioner George Murdock in unanimously issuing his support for local law enforcement from these protests, Elfering said he hadn’t had any discussions with community members, let alone any Black residents.
Instead, Elfering said the only communication he’s received are one-sided comments that he characterized as “hostile,” but is hopeful that this moment in our nation’s history offers the opportunity to have constructive discussions.
“I would be open to that kind of a conversation,” he said. “It would be nice in this world if we could have people come together and dialogue.”