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Volunteer works to bridge the gap in understanding

For Gresham's Joan Albertson, it's all about trust and confidence in her city's law enforcement


by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Joan Albertson and fellow volunteer Marc Willis use a GPD Gator to travel the Springwater Corridor Trail.

It’s always refreshing to stumble across someone who doesn’t subscribe to convention.

Joan Albertson became an accountant at a time when most women were secretaries. She purchased a home as a single woman in the 1970s, never succumbed to the expectations of marriage and retired at an early age.

Albertson continues to buck convention at age 70, but not because it’s ingrained or the vogue thing to do. She does it because she’s following her heart.

“The city is my family,” Albertson said. “I don’t have any children or brothers or sisters, so the city of Gresham is my family. I think of it as nurturing my community.”

A 40-year resident of Gresham, Albertson is a petite woman with a recognizable face. She’s everywhere — charitable fundraisers, city council meetings, chamber events.

But where she’s most visible is as one of 30 Citizen Volunteers in Community Policing for the Gresham Police Department. For the past five years, Albertson has spent four hours a day a couple times a month with a partner cruising through public areas around the city. They visit with residents at shopping centers, in parks and neighborhoods, easily identified by their dove gray T-shirts and baseball caps.

Albertson doesn’t jump on a bandwagon for no reason. She’s methodical, outspoken and difficult to refuse. She does her homework, learning what needs to be done, for whom and why, because that’s how you make an effective difference.

Albertson grew up in eastern Washington in a small town outside Spokane. An only child, she was 11 when her dad died suddenly, leaving Albertson and her mother to form a united front for survival.

After her mother went to work for physicians who had treated the family, Albertson finished her education. Following her high school graduation, she spent a year on a scholarship at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle. She transferred to Portland State in 1963, where she studied business, fully aware she was entering a predominantly male-dominated field.

“I’d learned very young I didn’t want to be a nurse, a secretary or a teacher,” Albertson said. “Growing up in a small town, I saw single women who had no privacy and everybody knew their business. That’s why it was important for me to move on.”

Albertson graduated from PSU in 1967. She went to work as a bookkeeper for the Doric Motor Hotel in Portland and sat for her certified public accounting license in 1969. It was a trailblazing move, but not one readily accepted by her peers.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Identifiable in dove-gray T-shirts and baseball caps, Albertson and fellow volunteer Marc Willis talk to residents and answer their questions in public areas including shopping centers, parks and neighborhoods.

“At the time, no one told me I was going into a field where I wouldn’t be welcome,” Albertson said. “In 1970, there were less than 2,000 licensed women CPAs in the United States. I just knew I never wanted to be in the same position as my mom as an adult. I wanted that piece of paper that said I could do something. That’s what drove me.”

For nearly 30 years, Albertson worked as a controller and CPA for international accounting firms, an agriculture company and a commercial printing operation. In 1971 she bought a home in the Centennial neighborhood of Gresham, where she cared for her mother until her death in 1995, then retired a few months later at age 51.

Albertson began attending Centennial Neighborhood Association meetings “to keep track of what was going on.” She was quickly “drafted” into the position of secretary for the group.

In 2005, WalMart made its public pitch for a super-store at Southeast Powell Boulevard and 182nd Avenue. Since Albertson was already the Centennial association’s representative to the city’s neighborhood coalition, she found herself at meetings revolving around ways to keep big box retailers from locating in residential neighborhoods.

The experience got her inside City Hall and inquisitive about how the government worked.

“I got to know a lot of different people from the city, and I began to learn how the city works,” she said. “But a lot of what they were dealing with was land-use issues, and I didn’t want to get into all those rules and regulations. I’d done enough with that detail work when I was working.”

In 2007, newly elected Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis called for a Community Safety Summit in an effort to get a bead on the challenges he would be facing, particularly where public safety needs were concerned. Albertson attended the summit and came away with a clearer picture of the growing pains the city was experiencing.

“They were all talking about public safety, but everybody was all up in arms about all the apartments and absentee owners,” she said. “People were all saying that was the cause of the whole problem. There was this undercurrent of frustration. Gresham had changed, some people didn’t like the change and everybody was trying to figure out who the bogeyman was.”

Albertson wrote a two-page letter to the mayor after the summit, expressing frustration over the adversarial relationship between the police department and the public. She even wished the mayor “good luck, because you’re going to need it.”

The subtle tongue lashing caught the attention of city officials, and Albertson was invited to participate in a task force established to study the feasibility of a pubic safety levy.

“They didn’t even know my name,” she said, laughing at the recollection. “They kept calling me the ‘letter writer.’ I could have been crazy as a hoot owl, but they gave me a chance.”

In 2008, Gresham voters resoundingly said “no” to a public safety levy. In his state-of-the-state address the following winter, Bemis called for volunteers to establish a citizens group for community policing. The intent was to improve public perception of the police department and to re-establish trust. Albertson immediately volunteered.

“I was afraid somebody would say I was too fat, too old or too short to do it,” she said, laughing. “But I love it. There are so many misconceptions about police officers and a certain fear of them. We observe and report to the police, but we also do a lot of community relations between the department and the public.”

Citizen volunteers answer questions and “interact with citizens,” but do not confront people and are taught how to leave and report questionable situations quickly. It’s not so much about uncovering crime issues, Albertson said, but more about creating a harmonious relationship between the public and those who protect them.

“People will tell us things that they would never report to an officer,” she said. “The police do so much work that nobody knows — building cases, working with the two (district attorneys), the crime lab. You learn tremendous respect for what they do. It’s tremendously rewarding.”