As sheriff's office gets set to take over, chief recalls tumultuous time

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - Cornelius Police Chief Ken Summers (right) shares a laugh with City Manager Rob Drake at a goodbye party in his honor. His last day as chief will be June 30.Cornelius Police Chief Ken Summers endured angry coworkers, in-fighting among his officers, countless problem-solving meetings, continuous setbacks and a string of lawsuits.

Yet he still counts that job as the highlight of his career.

When he took the helm of the Cornelius Police Department in the fall of 2012, Summers inherited a department so embroiled with conflict that he and city leaders ultimately determined it unsalvageable. The city council voted in April to turn the department over to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

A self-described “glass-half-full kind of person,” Summers has enjoyed himself even amid the strain. He’s kept a seemingly impossible positive attitude, strengthened by his faith in God and in people.

It’s that indomitable attitude that helped lead the department to a new solution taking effect July 1.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Summers, whose last day in the office is next Monday, June 30, when he’ll turn the reins over to Lt. Gene Moss of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Moss will serve as the new chief while maintaining his status with the WCSO.

Summers, who came out of retirement to take on the interim chief position after the previous chief retired amid all the turmoil, plans to slip back into retirement and travel around the country with his wife. But he’ll still be on hand through the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police to step in and help other departments.

Many are sad to see him leaving Cornelius.

Police Support Specialist Laura Christy has seen four chiefs pass through Cornelius’ doors in the last 18 years. When Summers took over, she noticed a more optimistic atmosphere. “I’m sad to see Ken wasn’t able to turn the place around. He had some great ideas and did some great things,” Christy said. “Some people just didn’t want it to work.”by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - Citizens and city leaders chat with Summers last week at a farewell bash to celebrate a momentous last year and a half.

“Ken’s been a breath of fresh air,” said Erika Martinez, Cornelius’ accounting technician, who often saw Summers at meetings. “Working in the police, there’s so much stress but he always had a smile on his face and that was impressive.”

The Cornelius Booster Club recognized Summers’ efforts by naming him Citizen of the Year recently.

His perspective was shaped partly by his childhood in Newberg, where he grew up in extreme poverty with no indoor plumbing, hauling water from a nearby creek to the family home he shared with his parents and five siblings.

“I don’t believe at all we are entitled to anything in this life,” he said. “When you’re frustrated, I think you should make your voice heard and then move on if you’re not happy. None of us are tied to anything and we aren’t owed more than the compensation we receive.”

His strong faith also plays a part, he said.

While working in Yamhill County as a detective, for example, Summers often prayed for the right words when interviewing people accused of murder or sex offenses. “How I can talk to this person so they’ll find some self-worth and self-respect and want to tell me the truth?” he’d ask himself.

Summers also prayed for fortitude in horrendous situations such as the aftermath of a full-family murder-suicide.

In Cornelius, Summers said, he prayed every day during his commute for wisdom, strength, commitment, clarity of mind — and to be an instrument of change who was even-handed and focused.

Sometimes his prayers were more specific than others. Once, when Summers needed to discipline an officer for inappropriate activity, he prayed for the “wisdom to be fair” so he could find a way to “correct the behavior without breaking his spirit.”

The morning Summers was scheduled to meet with the officer, he happened to receive a phone call from another chief he hadn’t spoken to in years — a chief he knew would be able to answer his questions about how to reprimand the officer.

Summers believes the discipline he chose at the advice of the other chief made the officer a better public servant: “He’ll never forget it, but he wasn’t scarred.”

In December 2013, three of the four officers who signed an explosive 2012 letter alleging department corruption, filed lawsuits against Summers and two other city officials for making their names public during the investigation and causing emotional distress.

Jef Dalin and Rob Drake presented Summers with an appreciation plaque as a formal thank you.The News-Times made numerous attempts to contact the four disgruntled officers for comments about Summers, but they did not return messages.

“There are times I felt very discouraged,” Summers said. “I sat with officers and felt like we were making positive changes, only then to get a nasty email from an attorney. I’d have a great conversation with somebody and then be personally attacked.”

Still, Summers said, he “tried to find the good” in each of his officers. “And I could. Each one of them has good attributes. I care about all of them.

“I often prayed for my own heart. I didn’t want to become like them — angry, frustrated and bitter. It doesn’t do anybody any good to have a chief like that.”

At least five lawsuits or tort claims were filed against the department by officers last year. Then last fall, two Cornelius officers testified against a fellow officer’s credibility in court — an unprecedented event and a further sign of the department’s festering wounds.

Every time Summers felt as if the department took a step forward, something seemed to neutralize its progress.

“I could see so much more litigation down the road,” he said.

Most officers rallied around him and the changes he was trying to make, Summers said, but one officer said watching all that support just made him angrier. He wanted his solution through the courtroom where he could publicly air his grievances, not through an improved department that put past issues behind.

One of the disgruntled officers asked to design a uniform shoulder patch that represented a new department built on the ashes of the old. The officer produced a new design that included the word “Invictus,” meaning “unconquered in difficulties.”

A short time later, the same officer filed a lawsuit against Summers and the department.

“I think things had just gone too far; there was too much damage. Some wounds haven’t healed,” Summers said. “The city has too much liability.” Knowing the legal costs ahead, it was easy to merge with the WCSO, which will foot legal bills for any future litigation.

The merger might also minimize future litigation because the current Cornelius police team will be spread out. About half will stay in Cornelius and the rest will disperse throughout the county. Summers hopes there will be less trouble if the officers aren’t all face to face.

“It didn’t work out at all how I imagined,” Summers said, “I think it worked out even better.”

And the year-and-a-half-struggle has not caused him to become disillusioned.

In fact, Summers said he’s more optimistic than when he started in Cornelius.

“I did more here than any other 18-month period in my career,” he said. “Everything I have ever done in my career led me here to fix this.”

Summers said there is great reason for Cornelius residents and employees to be proud and hopeful.

“I feel good leaving knowing the city is in good hands,” Summers said. “There are some really exciting changes happening. It’s going to be great.

“I’d love to be a part of it, but I’ll be watching.”

Changing of the guard

The Washington County Sheriff’s Department will take over the Cornelius Police Department Tuesday, July 1.

Lt. Gene Moss of WCSO will replace Summers as the chief but will still remain part of the sheriff’s department and will still report to Cornelius City Manager Rob Drake like Summers.

Cornelius officers will continue to wear Cornelius uniforms and use Cornelius cars, but they will technically be Washington County Sheriff’s Deputies. Their paychecks will come from the county and they will use WCSO firearms.

The Cornelius Police Department firearms and tasers were auctioned off last week and the few thousand dollars raised will go into the city’s general fund. They get to keep the equipment until June 30, though.

Cornelius officers will receive two months of county training. On Sept. 1, about half the officers will stay in Cornelius and the rest will be spread throughout the county.

“I want the citizens to know that virtually every officer working in Cornelius after the merger is there because they asked to be there,” Cornelius chief Ken Summers said. “They aren’t looking toward greener pastures. They competed to be here.”

The contract will cost roughly $2.4 million a year with slight increases annually. The department’s management structure has been stripped down from five positions to three — a chief, a sergeant and a corporal — in order to get more patrol officers out on the street.

In addition, the sheriff’s office will use the Cornelius station as a west precinct for the sheriff’s department which will afford the city extra patrol as the sheriff’s patrol deputies move in and out of the office.

Laura Christy, a Cornelius police and fire support specialist, will remain a city employee.

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