Nathan Sheppard is a Lieutenant in the Portland police bureau. He is a father. Both he and his wife of 21 years are Army veterans who were psychological operation specialists.
Nathan was happy to share his story, but he made a clear distinction that although he worked as a police officer in Portland, he was not talking to me as a representative of the police department, but rather as Nathan.
He said, “I will definitely share my thoughts as a member of law enforcement. I think that that more members of law enforcement should talk, there should be more conversations. That being said, I’m not the public information officer for the Portland Police Bureau in any way, shape or form. My thoughts are my own. My ideas are my own. Although I don’t think there’s going to be anything that the police bureau would reject or renounce, this is not an official visit. This is Nathan.”
We talked about what motivated him to serve in law enforcement, the challenges of historic unrest in the city and the various lenses through which he views current events as a black man, a police officer and a father.
I asked Nathan about his decision to work in law enforcement.
“For me, being a police officer is all about serving people. In the Army, I got to serve people. I got to do my best to try to keep people safe. My dad was in the Army and his dad was in the Army. So it was just kind of a family of service. That’s the way I looked at it.
After we had my daughter, my wife made the huge mistake of going online and looking up predatory sex offenders in our area. And after seeing that, I knew what I had to do. There was something I could do to keep my daughter safe in this world.
I don’t suggest doing it. You will scare yourself if you look that up. My daughter was on my mind and I told myself if I become a police officer, I can make a difference. I can keep people safe. I can make sure that the chances of something like that happening to my daughter are less. So yeah, I joined up to help.”
We talked about the killing of George Floyd in Minnespolis and the unrest that followed.
“As a black man, as a police officer, as a father, I have a lot of different lenses that I’m looking through. As all this unfolds, one question I asked myself is, ‘Is the end result of what’s going on now…is it going to result in a safer world for my kids, for my son?’
In some ways I think it will. I don’t want my son to be treated differently because of the color of his skin. It’s not something he can change and he’s going to be in situations where he will be treated differently than someone who’s not black.
Obviously as a police officer, I look at what happened with Floyd and to me it was disgusting. It was terrible.
I don’t want to say there was a personal shame because I’m not going to be ashamed of what somebody else has done. I’m not that person, and I live my life in a different way, but there’s definitely a shame for the profession that there are still people in the world who would do something like that.
I’ve definitely had to wrestle with that. It hasn’t made me want to stop being a police officer, though, because there are still people out there getting hurt. There’s still people out there who are begging for help, and I think I can give that to them.
I’m in the position that I’m in. So there’s a lot to unwrap, and a lot of thoughts and a lot of feelings that I can’t even necessarily express.”
I asked if it’s become harder to work as a police officer.
“Without a doubt, without a question, it’s become harder. There are some issues that are unique to Portland that are making it difficult for the guy who answers the 9-11 call to go out and do his, or her job. They still want to do it.”
Portland experienced about 170 days of unrest in 2020 and into 2021. We talked about the federal agents that were sent to the city.
“I don’t think they were invited. Them being here didn’t really have anything to do with the Portland Police Bureau. I will tell you personally, I was happy to see them, but not for the reason that most people might think.
After days and days, weeks and weeks and months of having rocks thrown at you, having balloons filled with feces and urine thrown at you, slingshots with ball-bearings, lasers aimed at your eyes, at some point you just need a break.
For the first 40 days, days off were canceled. We came to work every single day, and we were attacked physically, verbally, psychologically, emotionally, every single day. So with the arrival of the federal forces, just on a personal level, it allowed us to have a break.
These were not situations that we wanted to be in. But when rioters—and I won’t call them protesters—because when the protests happened, we had 5-10,000 people out on the streets in Portland, and you wouldn’t see a cop and they were protesting and they were making their voices heard. And we didn’t need to be around.
I mean, when the protesters were out, they were peaceful. When the rioters were out, they were starting fires. They were starting buildings on fire. I was in our central precinct, which is our headquarters. When protestors broke in and set fires inside, I could smell smoke on the 15th floor. I called my wife. I said, ‘I think everything’s going to be fine, but I just want to let you know, they’re trying to set this place on fire and I’m inside it.’
So it’s not what people expect when I say I was happy to see the federal forces, because unfortunately they started taking the abuse and we could take a few breaths.”
I asked Nathan how he personally navigates the challenges of that sort of tension.
“I mentioned the complexities in Portland, that there was a group of people out there who are not out there marching for racial justice. They may be yelling Black Lives Matter, but at the same time, they’re at our boys and girls club, just down the street, which serves low income kids of color mostly, and they’re breaking the windows. They’re at the local restaurants over here in one of our few areas that are predominantly black and they’re busting out windows. They were not about racial justice. They were about causing that tension. They were about causing a conflict and they wanted to fight.
So do we let them just burn down buildings because we’re trying to avoid conflict? And I’m not the one who made these decisions. Decisions were made at a much higher level than me, the structure being what it is.”
In a box.
“I want to believe that when my son is out driving and he gets stopped by a police officer, that he will be treated like my next door neighbor’s kid who is white, who gets stopped by a police officer.
You know, my son isn’t trained in deescalation like I am. He’s not trained in high stress situations like I am. He may be scared. What if he does something that worries the police officer who stops him? I want my son to have the same consideration or to not be put in a box that makes him dangerous.
Unfortunately in the United States, I believe that most black people are put in a box and that box—to people who are not black—says danger on it. And so a lot of black people are treated like they are dangerous.
Not just police officers, but frankly everyone in the United States needs to look at our history and see what kind of country we’ve built for everybody else.”
Where were you?
“Something that bothers me about what’s going on now in America…it hasn’t been perfect for a very long time…but now a lot of people are speaking up and frankly putting most of the load on law enforcement. But we didn’t create this country.
The citizens created the country, the citizens voted. The citizens had a chance to allow me to go to whatever school I wanted to for a long time, but it took a Supreme Court decision. The citizens of this country had a long time to allow me to live where I wanted to live, but it took a Supreme Court ruling to allow me to live anywhere.
My wife, she’s white. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled that, yeah, we should probably allow people to marry who we love.
These were laws. These were lawmakers who were voted in by the people. And I think that so many people in the United States have consciously decided to ignore their role in how things have turned out.
I appreciate you saying that eight years ago it changed for many people. I want to say, well, where were you 10 years ago? Where were you 15 years ago? This isn’t new.
There’s frustration for me personally, that it took so long. But not only that it took so long, that I still think people are unwilling to own their part in it. People are getting out in the streets and they are protesting the police. They’re not protesting their decisions to encourage red lining generations past, or all the stuff in our history that has made it harder for black and brown people to be successful economically. To own houses that they could pass down or go to college, make more money, that kind of thing.”
“You haven’t been a police officer, but you also haven’t been a police officer in 170 straight days of protesting. No police officer really has gone through what the Portland police officers have gone through. And it’s really a shame in my opinion, because the Portland Police Bureau has consistently tried to be the police agency that the city wants. I’ve been a police officer for 15 years, and there has not been a time in that 15 years that we haven’t been changing our training, that we haven’t been looking at new laws and trying to mold ourselves around that.
I mean, years before George Floyd, we were having young black kids come in and talk to our officers during our annual training, equity training. That’s nothing that is new for us.
I talked about the country keeping black people in a box. And I think that at least here in Portland, that’s being done with the police force. That’s being done with the Portland Police Bureau. We have tried to change. We are continually changing to try to be the safest, the best police agents who we can be to give the citizens of Portland the service they deserve.
But we’re being kept in a box by a lot of people who say, ‘Hey, the police are bad. The police don’t want to change.’ That’s all we’ve done since I’ve been a part of the Portland police bureau. That’s all we’ve done is change.”
“Over the last several decades, violent crime has really plummeted. Violent crime has gone down to amazingly low levels. But at the same time, when you look at surveys that were done of trust levels in police, those have been flat.
I think that was the country telling us, ‘Yeah, we’re happy that crime is going down, but we want you to look at how you’re policing.’ And I think that’s where we, as a profession, have really fallen down.
We didn’t look at that critically and say, ‘Why isn’t the trust in us going up? What is going on here? What are we missing?’
It’s going to take law enforcement to look back on it. You know, I mentioned, me as a black man, not being able to go to school where I wanted to go to school, not being able to live where I want to live, marry my wife…I asked my dad, ‘When was the first time you saw your dad cry?’
And he told me they were going across country. My grandfather had just gotten back from Vietnam and they were traveling across country to his next duty station. And obviously driving across country, it’s not something you do in a day. They stopped for some food. They parked and they started walking around the building. So this is the sixties. And my dad said, ‘Dad, what are you doing? The front, the restaurant’s over here, dad, what are you doing, dad? There’s the front of the restaurant. What is going on dad?’
And he looked up and my grandfather was crying. Because here he had spent time in Vietnam. He had put his life on the line for the country and the country wouldn’t let him walk into that restaurant.
But if he had, who would show up to take him out of that restaurant? You know who. We see the pictures in the diners of people protesting. Who eventually shows up to arrest him? People like me.
The story of Loving versus Virginia, they spent time in jail. They got married, they lived together. A judge said, ‘If you guys don’t cut this out, I’m going to take you to jail.’ Sure enough, the police showed up and took them to jail.
Law enforcement has not always been on the right side of history. I think law enforcement is also very slow to even accept responsibility.
It’s not uncommon for police officers to say today, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ And I believe them. I 100% believe them. But there’s a reputation that our profession has. And it’s an earned reputation. We have very clearly been on the wrong side of history a lot. And so I think that’s kind of where the healing has to begin. The public has to allow us to change and we have to realize why we need to change and why maybe that public has us in the box. Because it’s kind of a box of our own making.”
I asked when he had seen a glimmer of hope.
“We had a training several years ago where the facilitator told everyone in the room, ‘Hey, think for a minute, and then tell the person across from you, when was the first time that you realized that your race affected your life?’ And I was with a white female officer. And you know, it was easy for me. I told her I would walk to school in Georgia where my dad was stationed. And every day there were these two big white kids who would call me every name in the book and mainly the main name. And there would be fights and they were bigger and I was terrified to walk to school because of these kids. So for me, I can point to that time right there. I was this age. I was in this place.
And she couldn’t really come up with one.
It wasn’t on her radar.
But that class pointed out to her that it wasn’t on her radar. It’s something that she never had to think about.
Portland Police Bureau is putting an effort into it. And I think that is the start, when you put an effort into it, it starts to make a difference. We do this mindfulness training and what makes mindfulness so effective in a lot of ways is that you’re thinking about it. You’re paying attention.”
“I think it would surprise a lot of people to sit down and have a conversation with a police officer. I would say the majority of police officers in Portland signed up because they wanted to do good. They aren’t psychiatrists and psychologists, but they’ve been asked to do that job. They would welcome professionals to come in and to help people who are suffering from mental illness. They would welcome people who have expertise in helping those who are drug affected, who are alcohol affected.
There are a lot of studies that say people who are in better economic conditions are going to cause less problems in society. I’m not necessarily against us putting money, putting efforts into all these other support agencies to make sure that people don’t end up in the criminal justice system.
That being said, at least in Portland right now, we can’t even help with the hard crime. We’re getting to the point where we just can’t keep up.
So to take more money away from that when the safety nets aren’t even there yet…you know, in the last 365 days more black and brown people died in Portland than in decades. It’s something that is being ignored or that excuses are being made for all of the black people and brown people that are being shot in Portland right now.
It’s a consequence of something. Some people might say it’s COVID, and crime has risen everywhere across the board, but in Portland, it’s just at an exponential rate, and it’s a tough one. And right now it’s the minority communities that are going to suffer.”
Nathan’s closing advice
“Something that I’ve started to try to live by, as I’ve started to become a leader in the Portland Police Bureau is the idea that people live up to your lowest expectation. And so I need to expect more. I need to expect more from the people who work for me. I need to expect more from myself. I need to hold people to a high standard because if I hold them to a low standards, it’s very easy to meet and it’s very easy to stop and to give up. So I would say, expect more from people.”
-When have you felt compelled to serve your community? Why?
-What are the various lenses through which you see the world?
-Have you ever been faced with hostility or lack of trust? And how did that impact you?
-Talk about your own distinctions between protesters and rioters.
-How do you navigate moments of significant tension?
-Have you started understanding our country’s history differently in the past few years? What changerd your perception?
-When was the first time you realized that your race affected your life?
-Have you ever sat down for a conversation with someone in law enforcement?