Jeff Kuhns was a patrol sergeant in the mid-1990s when he got a preview into how the profession would change in the last half of his career.
Beginning in the winter and continuing right through to summer, officers had been responding to the same address where a teenage girl was repeatedly running away from home. On that fateful summer night, Officer Mindy Tucker had apparently had enough. She responded to the newest report from the home and spent the next four hours facilitating a heart-to-heart between the parents and their daughter.
“Other officers were fielding a bunch of other incoming calls and they were kind of upset. But she unplugged and said she was tired of coming to the house and they were going to figure it out,” Kuhns said. “She solved the problem by identifying the root cause and, to my knowledge, we never responded there again. That was when the light turned on for me. She got it, we had to try to figure out what was the root problem because we can’t arrest our way out of it again and again.”
Kuhns retired at the end of May as deputy chief of the Keizer Police Department. He spent the entirety of his professional police career, 29 years and eight months, at KPD and only one other employee outlasted him in terms of time served there.
Other opportunities arose during his time, but Kuhns’ roots in Keizer run deep. Not long after landing his first full-time gig with Keizer, he and wife, Trish, built a home here. Their two kids both graduated from McNary. That was by design, he said.
“Dick Withnell was one of my baseball coaches and his big thing was leaving the community in a better place than when you found it. I wanted to get involved in my community,” Kuhns said.
If anything, Withnell’s message reinforced things Kuhns was learning from neighbors at a young age.
As a kid growing up in northeast Salem, neighbors helped pave the road that led to a career in policing. One neighbor was a deputy with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and sometimes ended up taking care of a trailer that acted as a mobile museum of local law enforcement.
“When he had it at home, he would open it up for the neighborhood kids,” Kuhns said.
Another neighbor was a Salem police officer who would let Kuhns and other kids explore his patrol car. Yet another neighbor, Dr. Peter Batten, was the county medical examiner for more than three decades. Batten watched as Kuhns’ interest grew and invited him to attend autopsies on two occasions – the first was a run-of-the-mill death, the second was part of a criminal investigations.
Kuhns’ intended to study accounting when he enrolled in college, and follow in his father’s footsteps, but he learned fairly quickly that he wasn’t a match for the role. He ended up studying criminal justice at Chemeketa Community College and joined the reserve officer pool at Independence Police Department.
When KPD put out a call for new recruits, Kuhns submitted his application – alongside 700 others. He and current KPD Chief John Teague were two of nine candidates selected.
For Kuhns, city policing “was the best of all worlds and you had a lot of assistance around if you need it.”
Within a short amount of time, Kuhns was making his way through the ranks. His first major stop was the detective squad with longtime partner John Troncoso. Kuhns said it was the most rewarding of all the roles.
“You are responsible for the most serious crimes and, if you can solve those crimes, the individuals who were harmed are so appreciative. Whether it’s a hug after a trial, a Christmas card that arrives on the regular each December or someone making a point of stopping by to wish you happy holidays,” he said.
The most fun was that of patrol sergeant where he got to supervise all the most serious calls and assign and direct his unit without the load of additional paperwork. He was promoted to captain in 2003 and his work became primarily administrative, but he was still able to respond to calls regularly given the relatively small size of the Keizer police force.
Kuhns’ most difficult day was Dec. 12, 2008, and it wasn’t even the result of a Keizer police incident. It was the day two men placed a bomb outside a Woodburn bank and it later detonated killing two officers and injuring a third.
Kuhns was part of Marion County’s Homicide Assault Response Team at the time and one of more than 250 investigators assigned to the crime. He knew all three of the officers involved in the explosion.
“That was one of the worst things I ever saw, two fellow brothers being killed over a attempted bank robbery,” he said.
The craziest day of his career occurred when he was a detective. A message came in over his pager from Troncoso to get to a radio. D&D Jewelry on River Road had been robbed by two armed men. The owner shot one of them as they fled and wounded him.
A few minutes later, another call came in that there was an explosion and vehicle fire at an apartment complex not far from the jewelry store.
“We had no idea if the two were connected, but we figured out pretty quickly that they were,” Kuhns said. The witness that connected the incidents was in kindergarten.
“Part of my job was canvassing and talking to people who might have seen what happened. After we got the fire out, I noticed a kid sitting on the steps and went over to talk to him,” Kuhns said. “He said, ‘I saw the whole thing.’”
The boy had seen two men get out of the now-destroyed vehicle and leave with a third man in a red sports car. When Kuhns asked him if he noticed anything else, the boy told him that the driver of the second vehicle had been in the parking lot for a while and gotten out of his car to throw something away in a community trash bin.
“He also told me it would be the only thing in it since the garbage man came earlier that day,” Kuhns said.
Kuhns walked over to the bin and opened the lid. Its only contents were a cast-off bag from Fred Meyer. The third suspect had picked up chicken fingers and jojos earlier that morning. In addition to time stamps on the packaging that let police track movement, investigators also got a fingerprint off the bag.
The men who robbed the store used a bomb to blow up their getaway vehicle as a distraction.
“Police caught up with the guys in Portland and the whole thing ended with a wreck on Interstate 205. One of the guys had a bullet in his shoulder that he couldn’t explain,” Kuhns said.
While both the bombing and the robbery/explosion stand out most during his long career, Kuhns said the changes in policing, starting with Tucker’s defusing of the runaway situation, are welcome ones.
“We look at the incidents more holistically. Officers are taking a lot more factors into account and looking at the impacts down the line and whether the act itself deserves all those other consequences,” Kuhns said. “That’s not a soft-on-crime approach, it’s a professional one. The people we meet might be having the worst day of their life and we try to be as helpful as we can.”
As Kuhns, and several others with equal time on the job, leave KPD, he’s been happy to be part of handing the organization over to a new generation.
“They are excellent human beings with big hearts. I admire them more than anybody because they are the ones raising their hands and saying I want to do this. Even after all that’s gone on, they want to be part of the solution – be part of the community – and help,” Kuhns said.
‘That was a very, very dark time’
Kuhns on the reign of Chief Charles Stull
Jeff Kuhns, aside from having been one of the longest serving Keizer Police Department employees, also lived through one of the department’s most tumultuous eras.
Charles Stull was the chief from the time Kuhns was hired until he was removed from the post by the Keizer City Council in 1997.
Trouble had been brewing for some time, but concerns about his management style were aired publicly after a council-ordered, two-month investigation by a retired DEA agent.
“He had some good qualities and he had some terrible qualities. I remember telling myself I would not do things the way he did them,” Kuhns said. Kuhns himself had been on the receiving end of verbal abuses.
The final report – 133 pages and six volumes of supporting documentation – shed light on a litany of offensive behavior. Stull was accused of sexual harassment, verbal harassment, intimidation of officers and placing officers at risk. In just a two specific examples, he was found to have voided citations for friends and acquaintances and attempted to place undercover officers at risk by requiring them to wear uniforms. The latter was in retaliation for a grievance filed by those in the department.
Stull ordered the Keizer Police Association Union to hold a vote on support of him and, instead, the union voted against Stull. That was followed by a vote of no confidence. The council voted to remove Stull from his post in a 6-1 vote, the only vote against the action came from a councilor whose relatives had a citation voided by Stull.
Kuhns cooperated with the investigation, but that alone was an act of courage.
“There were those who didn’t believe the investigation would work, but I trusted the system,” Kuhns said. “That was a very, very dark time. It was difficult to get through, but we came out of it better.”