New East Precinct Commander has world of experience

by: David F. Ashton Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Michael Lee stands with Sgt. Wendi Steinbronn.

With the dissolution of Southeast Precinct for budgetary reasons, Southeast Portland from S.E. 39th (Chavez) eastward is now patrolled by officers of East Precinct.

Recently, THE BEE reported the retirement of Portland Police Bureau's Commander Bill Walker, and now East Precinct's new 'top cop' is Commander Michael Lee.

Although he's been in Portland for 22 years, Commander Lee speaks with a slight drawl that explains the blue-and-white University of Kentucky Wildcats memorabilia adorning the bulletin board behind his deck.

When we asked about his background, Lee began, 'I went to college for about 3½ years, but didn't really know what I wanted to do; my family was aghast when I left college to join the Army. But, I did very well there; I attended Officer Candidate School, and got out as a captain.

'The reason I left the military was that I've got three daughters, and they were approaching school age,' Lee continued. 'Some kids accept better than others the constantly-changing [military family] environment. I didn't want to take that risk with my children.

'Although I'm originally from the Tennessee and Kentucky area, my wife is from here - the Pacific Northwest. We decided to move to Portland.

'Growing up, my next-door neighbor was a state police officer. He was always as nice as could be - out helping people. I've always been fascinated with police work; and it seemed to be the way to continue to being of service to my country, and my community.

'It has structure - you work with like-minded people who are of a high moral fiber and integrity…the kind of things that I was raised with, and grew up with.'

When he moved to Portland in 1989, Lee said that he applied at the Portland Police Bureau; he was assigned to North Precinct as patrol officer. 'It was active out there. It's where - young cops would say - lots of stuff's going on. I had several partners, including [now] Public Information Officer Lt. Robert King.'

Looking back over the years, Lee pointed out, 'Police work doesn't change very much. Sometimes you see limiting factors having to do court decisions. And you do get the benefits of improving technology. We adjust; we go out there and try to help people. That's what we are here for.'

After working in North Precinct, Lee said he was downtown and patrolled the Old Town area before becoming a sergeant moving to Southeast Precinct in 2000. 'I moved to work downtown with the anti-war demonstrations in 2003. From there I went to the Training Division.'

In 2004, Lee took leave from the Portland Police Bureau to travel halfway around the world to teach basic police curriculum and officer safety and skills courses to the Iraqi police force. 'I worked in Baghdad for a while, and then went up to Kurdistan, and worked with the Kurds as well.

'It was a phenomenal experience. You're working in an environment that's about as unsafe as can be, with daily shootings, mortars, and gunfights, going on all around the places where I worked.

'But the work was extremely rewarding, because you're dealing with folks who didn't get much training, and didn't get much equipment. We helped them with the equipment they had, using the curriculum to teach basic fundamental, and skill sets of survival and officer safety.

'It's unimaginable to realize the peril those folks place themselves in on a daily basis, in an environment where you can't tell who the bad guys are at any given time. Anyone can walk in anytime, and detonate an explosive device because of ideological differences and beliefs.

'I made some lifelong friends, and I still stay in touch with them. But, others I knew there have been killed. It gives you a huge appreciation for how good we have it here.'

Now seated in his new office as East Precinct Commander, Lee commented, 'If I can help one person every day feel better about their situation, or help them in their life, I feel I've done my job. I was told this by an older officer early on, and believe it's true; that's what I've done throughout my career.

'But, 'help' comes in all fashions. Some people need a pat on the back - and some people need to go to jail! In our society, a small percentage of people engage in behavior that is unacceptable. That's why we are here - to shield the remainder of the folks who want to go about their lives, have their families grow, and feel safe in their own homes.

'Nonetheless, in the end, it's about treating people with respect.'