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Former police chief Scott Whitehead wins seat on North Plains City Council

Last Wednesday morning, the day after he was elected to the North Plains City Council, Scott Whitehead drove his two daughters to school and returned home to help his wife, Coby, care for the family’s three dogs.

When he was done with his chores, he shed his blue-and-black security officer uniform, ate some breakfast and got ready for bed — he’d been up all night. Whitehead, 50, works the graveyard shift at Tuality Community Hospital in Hillsboro. Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: CHASE ALLGOOD - Scott Whitehead, his wife Coby and their twin daughters Meagan and Janessa pause in front of their North Plains home. Whitehead won election to the small towns city council in the Nov. 4 election in a political comeback after resigning his position as police chief there in 2010.

That job is quite a departure from four years ago, when Whitehead wore an all-black uniform as chief of the North Plains Police Department. In an exit negotiated with city officials, he resigned that position in May 2010 after he admitted to watching pornography on a department computer — a clear policy violation.

When he applied for a police position in Carlton months later, he said nothing to the background investigator about the incident.

“I had signed a nondisclosure agreement with [North Plains] that said I wouldn’t talk about it and they wouldn’t talk about it,” he said.

The Carlton job ended the following year when the town’s then-police chief, Bill Middleton, determined Whitehead had been untruthful during his application process. Soon after that, a state Department of Public Safety Standards & Training (DPSST) police policy committee yanked Whitehead’s certification for “dishonesty” and “gross misconduct,” banning him from police work for the rest of his life.

Whitehead continued to live in North Plains, a tiny community with one school, a single convenience store, two local watering holes, three parks, two churches, a senior center and a library.

Because of the confidential nature of Whitehead’s departure from city employment, most residents were in the dark about the reason.

“I really don’t know how many people were aware of why I left,” he said. “It’s never been much of a topic of discussion.”

For Whitehead, North Plains is home — and he wasn’t about to hide. He kept a public profile, going to the North Plains Garlic Festival in August, “Jingle Through North Plains” in December and a variety of activities at North Plains Elementary, where his twin daughters, Meagan and Janessa, are in second-grade — and decided to run for city council this fall.

Six days before the Nov. 4 election, The Oregonian broke the story about his 2010 resignation and his lifetime ban from police work. The words “lying about porn” figured prominently.

“I didn’t think it was really important news four years after the fact, but they did,” Whitehead said of the newspaper. “I made a mistake, and I took responsibility for what I did. It’s old news, though it still seems to be the big headline.”

Despite the timing of the story, Whitehead won. After garnering the third-highest number of votes last Tuesday, he’ll join councilors-elect Sherrie Simmons and Sandi King on the six-member panel in January for terms stretching four years. Voters ushered in a fairly radical overhaul of the council by dropping veterans Glen Warren and Michael Broome and adding Simmons (a health services company director) and King (a veterinary technician and antique store owner) along with Whitehead.

Councilor Michael Demagalski, who lives in North Plains but works as a police officer in Seaside, did not run for re-election.

‘Tough stuff’ coming up

Simmons, who had a stint on the council in 2003-04, knows Whitehead from his time as police chief, when she’d see him at community functions. She takes her dogs to Best Friends Boutique, Coby Whitehead’s home-based grooming service, and said she’s looking forward to working with Whitehead. As far as she’s concerned, his issues are in the past.

“If his goal is to help the citizens and the city, then I’m all for it,” Simmons said Sunday, adding she believes Whitehead’s ability to communicate will help councilors deal with some “tough stuff” coming up, including a “way overdue” update of North Plains’ comprehensive plan, key personnel decisions and — as always — ongoing discussions about growth.

“We need to come up with a vision for our town,” said Simmons. “We’re always going to be a bedroom community. We won’t be Hillsboro or Beaverton, but a grocery store with a pharmacy in town would be nice.”

King cast her ballot two weeks before it was due — and a week before the Oregonian story appeared.

“I was kind of shocked when it came out,” King said. “I think it was dirty pool. People should have been informed before they voted. It either needed to come out sooner, or not at all.”

Though she conceded that “everybody has skeletons in their closet,” King worries that some North Plains residents might be “disillusioned” with Whitehead even before he takes his seat on the council.

Still, King insists she’ll have no problem collaborating with Whitehead, who’s taking a long view of politics in the city he’s lived in for a decade.

“I didn’t get on the council to make up for what happened in 2010,” he said. “I got on the council to help the community move forward. If people have reservations about me, give me a couple years. People will know there’s a strong city government and that I’m part of it.”

Whitehead says he got the notion to run for city council — his first foray into local politics — sometime last year, when friends nudged him into action.

“They told me, ‘You used to work for the city. You know a lot about the city’s inner workings.’”

In the weeks leading up to the election Whitehead went door-to-door to about 100 homes, talking to people about his vision for a community featuring safe streets, adequate infrastructure and “controlled growth that preserves its small-town flavor,” as he puts it.

“Most everyone I talked to resonated with that,” he said.

Council president Teri Lenahan was on the panel when Whitehead was chief. Then-city manager Don Otterman sought council approval of Whitehead’s resignation “and we supported that,” she said. “After he left the city he was off my radar.”

She’s willing to give him a second chance.

“The people of North Plains clearly spoke with their votes,” said Lenahan. “He has to prove himself worthy and capable of the position.”

A native of Sacramento, Calif., Whitehead moved to southern Oregon with his family as a child and graduated from Medford High School in 1982. He enlisted in the military and after boot camp ended up in Germany, stationed at the U.S. Army Mortuary in Frankfurt. Then 18, Whitehead’s job was to receive the remains of U.S. Marines and Navy personnel — as well as those of some NATO allies.

He and his comrades processed the bodies of most of the 299 American and French servicemen who died in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 23, 1983.

For a year and a half, he opened body bags and transported their human remains into the mortuary. Many were missing arms or legs. One of Whitehead’s tasks was to try to find a match from a pile of severed limbs inside another black bag: “You’d look at a guy’s right arm and try to match it to a left one. You’d look at the size and shape of the hands.”

The experience had a lasting effect on the young soldier.

“For the first five years after I got out [of the Army], I had some pretty heavy nightmares,” Whitehead recalled. “Everything was always dead bodies. My brain kept wanting to take me back to the mortuary.”

He saw some of his Army buddies devolve into alcohol abuse after experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Whitehead said he was never treated for PTSD and was able to resist the temptation to self-medicate.

“If I hadn’t experienced Beirut,” he said, “I might have stayed in the military.”

Instead, he came home to Medford, took a year of college, dropped out — and got on with the Talent Police Department south of Ashland in 1987. He graduated from the Oregon Public Safety Academy in 1988.

After that, Whitehead’s career trajectory took him to the Phoenix (Ore.) Police Department, where he stayed until 1991. But he continued to “run into more dead people,” including a baby whose addled teenage father put him in a freezer one night when the infant wouldn’t stop crying.

“That sort of thing stays with you,” Whitehead said. “I needed to do something different for a while.”

He moved to Portland in 1992 and worked security for several companies. In 2000, he went to work for a hazardous materials contractor, cleaning up meth labs for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In 2003, North Plains hired him as a police officer. He married Coby in 2005, the same year he was promoted to chief. Their daughters were born in 2007.

Controversial time as chief

Whitehead says now he was “completely over-stressed” while he was top cop in North Plains. Unlike chiefs in larger departments, “when you are one of two people you have to do everything,” he said. “You don’t get to delegate much of your work load to other people.”

He connects those day-to-day pressures with the one specific behavior that got him into trouble: porn-viewing discovered on his office hard drive after he alerted the city’s information technology specialist about a slowdown in the functioning of his computer.

The IT contractor reported what he found to Otterman, triggering an internal investigation that ended with Whitehead’s resignation in May 2010.

He says he’s overcome the “blip” on his record.

“Is it a factor anymore? No. I stopped. I’ve grown past it,” he said.

Coby feels the same way.

“What happened with Scott was not a reflection on our lives,” she said. “I could see how stressed he was and only seeing him a few hours a day was rough on us all.

“Our family moved on a long time ago. We are a strong family with good values. We all love each other very much and that is who we are.”

There were aspects of the job her husband enjoyed — interacting with community members, posting near the elementary school during high-traffic times of the day to make sure students crossed the street safely — but the long hours were wearing him down.

“There were only two of us — me and Officer Tim Thurber (who has since retired),” Whitehead said. “I worked day shift and he worked nights. I was on call seven days a week. I had a pager and cell phone attached to me at all times.”

As a salaried employee, Whitehead didn’t get overtime pay. But he often worked from 7:30 in the morning until 6 or 7 in the evening.

“I was constantly being called out,” he said. “I’d see my family from maybe 7 to 9 p.m., and that was it.”

Still, he says, he didn’t resent his time leading the agency. He has fond memories of holidays when he and his staff would “go out and find eight to 10 families that needed turkey dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’d find the families, and Gonzales Boring & Tunneling (a local drilling company) would provide the food.”

A few potent distractions marked his sometimes-controversial five years as chief. In 2008, former court clerk Sandra Kay Quesnoy was convicted of embezzling more than $200,000 in traffic fine receipts.

“That was pretty awful,” Whitehead said.

Then there was the pushback around the same time over a departmental focus on traffic enforcement. A Whitehead-led campaign, which created a spike in tickets for speeding and stop sign infractions, didn’t set well with some folks, particularly drivers and bicyclists from out of town.

“They were upset, yeah,” Whitehead said. But he defends the activity, saying it was a top-down directive from Otterman during a time of financial thin ice — voters turned down three of four property tax levy requests to support city services between 1980 and 2008.

“There was a huge push by the administration to raise revenue in the general fund,” Whitehead said. “For the city it was more of a money concern. For me, it was a public safety concern.

“We didn’t write unwarranted tickets.”

William Snyder, an officer with the Hillsboro Police Department for 11 years, took over as North Plains chief in January 2011.

Today, a message on the NPPD website claims that “over the past three years the police department has successfully transformed itself from an agency focused on ticket-writing to one that patrols within the community and conducts thorough investigations of reported crimes, particularly those involving drug use and children.”

Whether that’s a dig at his performance as chief is a moot point as far as Whitehead is concerned. He says he’s willing to work with Snyder and anyone else who wants to make North Plains a better place to live.

“As a councilor I can offer him support and an understanding of the way the police department operates and what it needs,” Whitehead said.

Having served in the military, in law enforcement and now in health care security, Whitehead feels he’s come full circle. On the back end of the week, when he’s done with his three 12-hour shifts at Tuality, he’s free to spend time with his wife and daughters, putter in his yard or have a beer with a friend.

And now he has the opportunity to serve on the city council.

“At first I wanted to fight the DPSST’s decision” to take away his badge, Whitehead said. “But when the day came and I realized I wasn’t a cop anymore, it was the greatest relief you can imagine. My blood pressure dropped immediately.”

As for his possible detractors, Whitehead comes out on the side of renewal.

“What I did was wrong, but it wasn’t so grievous that I don’t think I deserve forgiveness,” he said. “I’m looking straight ahead. I want to find out what people’s dreams are for this city.

“My commitment is to the residents here — they voted me in. They expect good representation, and they’re going to get it.”

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