Gresham resident relishes challenges as county law enforcement leader
BY SHANNON WELLS
The Gresham Outlook
JIM CLARK / THE OUTLOOK Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton works in his downtown Portland office.
Dan Staton’s approach toward work, as well as life, reflects a calm, even-keeled demeanor.
“I don’t call myself a micromanager,” he says. “But I’m not laissez-faire either. I’m somewhere in between.”
The interim Multnomah County sheriff’s sense of pragmatic orderliness is at odds, however, with the recent reputation of the department he’s run since last November.
From the ethical lapses of former Sheriff Bernie Giusto to the proficiency-testing saga that sidelined Staton’s predecessor, Bob Skipper, in 2009, Staton is painfully aware of the chaos for which the office is known.
“We went through a period where people were embarrassed to be seen in our uniform,” Staton says. “I’d go to a training class 300 miles away and they would ask, ‘What’s going on in Multnomah County?’ There was an embarrassment attached to that.”
Named as Skipper’s choice to succeed him when he retired last fall, Staton was approved as interim sheriff by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. He was sworn in Nov. 5.
In the May primary election, voters will decide whether Staton or challengers Muhammad Ra’oof, a corrections sergeant, and retired Undersheriff Tom Slyter will take over the interim role as well as serve a four-year term that begins in November.
Among other challenges, Staton, a 12-year Gresham resident, intends to restore the sense of order, focus and pride he saw in the sheriff’s department he joined 20 years ago.
“Living down the history and the difficulties brought about by a former sheriff is one of the biggest problems,” he says. “We need to get past that.
“I’m the new sheriff, and there’s a new board (of county commissioners). We should be focusing on where we need to go now.”
Calling Staton a “team player,” board Chairman Ted Wheeler says he’s confident in the sheriff’s abilities to tackle issues including public safety priorities and budgetary constraints.
“What impresses me the most about Sheriff Staton is he’s very genuine,” Wheeler says. “He’s very engaged in some of the thornier issues surrounding the budget, and I appreciate his strong willingness to partner with us.”
Although he didn’t expect to enter the fray quite so soon, Staton, 50, says he’s more than ready to take on a crucial leadership role at this stage of his career.
His career in the sheriff’s department includes roles in court services, river patrol, search and rescue coordination and uniform patrol. The latter included a stint as Corbett’s school resources officer, serving as the Springdale-Corbett area’s primary law enforcement patrol.
Staton’s earlier career — from years of military service to private sector jobs in accounting and finance management — is just as varied.
“Being sheriff, and before that a captain, was the culmination of pulling all those experiences together,” he says, noting his interest in law enforcement started as a student at Madison High School in Portland. “My background and knowledge has helped in a lot of areas with existing problems.”
Given a life-changing ordeal he experienced in 2004, Staton could also add “survivor” to his resume.
One winter day, after helping clean up a methamphetamine lab in a drug bust, Staton found himself seriously disoriented in his patrol car. Following an incoherent phone call to his office, he fell unconscious.
A pneumonia virus — likely from contact with someone carrying severe strep — had turned septic and broken his blood-brain barrier. Eventually, the condition rendered all but Staton’s heart and lungs functionless. Attached to medical machines while doctors’ talked of amputating both his legs, Staton’s survival chances plummeted.
Then, for no clear reason, his condition improved. But as he regained consciousness, a combination of pain and paralysis gripped parts of his body.
“I can’t even begin to describe what it was like,” he says. “There were times I didn’t think I was going to get through it.”
Following a kidney transplant — after his sister donated one of her organs — and months of physical therapy, Staton gradually regained his health.
Once feelings of fear and anger subsided, Staton came to accept what he saw as a new gift of life.
“I got lucky,” he says. “Someone was watching over me.”
Other than changes in his diet, the husband and father’s ordeal hasn’t diminished his ability to work and play.
“There are differences,” he admits. “I’m not as physically fit as I was, but I’m capable of doing all the things I used to do.”
Those include spending what down time he can find with his wife, Kimberly, and their 6-year-old daughter, Madison, both of whom support Staton’s aspirations to the sheriff’s role.
“My daughter thinks it’s fantastic,” he says. “My wife is involved in a lot of the civic groups. She’s almost as involved as I am. My family is my number one priority.”
Much to do
During work hours, however, Staton’s hands are full, if not overflowing. A Multnomah County charter review committee and grand jury report outline front-burner issues, ranging from sick-time regulation to jail operations, particularly the issue of overcrowding.
Regarding the latter, Staton is exploring a system to help steer repeat “mild” offenders — whose problems are triggered by drug and alcohol or mental health problems — away from jail and back toward productive lives.
“We want to start the re-entry program while in the jail system. Not when you leave it,” he says. “We can determine who we can actually release sooner. If they fit into the criteria, we can release more bed space.”
Despite steep challenges for the agency, Wheeler notes Staton’s proactive approach in his first months bode well if he is elected in May to a four-year term.
“Sheriff Staton will have two key challenges,” Wheeler says. “First is stabilizing an agency that’s been through several wrenching changes in the last few years. Second will be maintaining public safety infrastructure with increasingly limited resources.
“It’s going to require not only strong leadership, but a lot of creativity as well.”