Geoff Spalding is a policing chameleon. His nearly 40-year career has taken him to police departments in California and Oregon, where he’s been a uniformed officer, detective, chief and even spent a few years patrolling on motorcycles.
“You could work so many different assignments in your career that it was always like starting a new job,” Spalding said. “I typically would do something different every three or four years. I never got tired of the job in general.”
Spalding, 60, announced his second career retirement in 2016, ending a seven-year span as chief of the Beaverton Police Department. But he started his latest gig this week as the Astoria Police Department’s interim chief.
“Maybe I wasn’t quite ready to retire the first time or, actually, the second time,” he said.
Until Astoria finds a permanent chief, Spalding will work for a monthly salary of $8,639, or $103,668 annually, along with a housing stipend. Spalding likely will lead the police department for at least six months. His arrival marks the first step in a leadership transition process for the department.
Former Chief Brad Johnston retired suddenly earlier this month after an independent assessment documented leadership failures, staff shortages, politics and conflict. The strife drained employee morale and left the department nearing a crisis.
Deputy Chief Eric Halverson, singled out in the report as a well-respected leader, assumed Johnston’s duties the past few weeks. During that time, Akin Blitz, the Portland labor attorney who directed the assessment, called Spalding to gauge his interest.
Spalding had applied for the police chief position in Astoria a decade ago, but he pulled out of the running before accepting the Beaverton job. This time, he and his wife decided to give the North Coast a shot.
“We knew logistically it might be a little difficult, but we figured we’d figure it all out,” Spalding said. “Things come around full circle sometimes.”
Spalding earned a criminal justice degree from California State University, Fullerton, as well as a master’s degree in emergency management from CSU Long Beach.
After a 32-year career with the Fullerton Police Department, Spalding moved to Beaverton in 2009. In his seven years there, he supervised 177 officers in the state’s sixth-largest city. He guided the force through up to half a dozen officer-involved shootings and created its first bilingual outreach coordinator position.
Spalding is familiar with some area law enforcement officials and city employees after applying for the Astoria job. He also has made connections through the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, where he serves on the executive board and was the president for a year.
“I’m very impressed with the quality of people here,” Spalding said. “They’ve somehow been able to keep that positive face in the community. That I really respect.”
He has read the assessment that preceded Johnston’s retirement, but still wants to meet with all employees to assess their concerns and the department’s overall culture. From those conversations, he hopes to initiate a strategy to avoid the burnout and morale issues employees have expressed.
“This really isn’t a department that’s broken by any stretch,” he said. “It’s just, hopefully, maybe, stabilizing things a little bit — if that’s the right word — and setting things up so that the next person that replaces me will be successful and they’re not going to have to deal with a lot of issues.”
He also pointed to a lack of available funding — a common complaint from his predecessor — and the time it takes to hire new officers — at least a year once the process begins — as limitations in terms of the major improvements the department may need.
“I would like to believe we are a priority department, but, again, there are lots of important things the city needs to do, too,” Spalding said.
Spalding’s impression so far is that the city manager and city councilors will not attempt to micromanage the police department.
“That, to me, would be a challenge I don’t know that I’d really want to work with,” he said.
One of the more immediate issues Spalding will look to tackle is an increased number of dispatch calls. Factors such as increased tourism and an uptick in the homeless population have worn out police and dispatch staffs that are already short-handed.
“It’s just busier. It’s not just anecdotal,” he said. “People know that we’re going to more calls.”
The police department may look into an online reporting system, rather than requiring that dispatchers handle all calls. The system could allow more reports to be resolved without officer response, or at least prioritize which ones need immediate attention. The department also may seek to sign a contract with Clatsop County Animal Control to handle dog and animal complaints.
The key is balancing staff safety and fatigue levels with the obligation to protect the public, Spalding said.
“I’m not going to act like an interim chief,” he said. “I’m going to be the chief until I’m no longer here, and I plan to get involved in the community.”