Brent Larson, who retired in June after nearly 24 years with The Dalles Police Department, always felt he was “a natural police officer” as a youth, when he defended kids against schoolyard bullies.
He believes people are “hard-wired from the factory to do a certain thing” and his thing—well, two of them—was being in the military and in law enforcement.
Growing up in La Grande, he was fascinated with the military, playing with Army men as a kid and building models after school. During school, he would come to the defense of bullied kids, who invariably faced a whole group of tormenters, never a single foe.
“To have the courage and fortitude to stand up against the group that’s picking on somebody, that takes strength of character,” Larson said. “And it does sound cliché—but it’s not, in my opinion—this job is all about helping people.”
Sometimes help means taking them to jail, sometimes it means not taking them to jail. “The job is more and more all about solving problems and counseling people.”
He said officers have to learn how to “downplay or reduce friction on a call, or you’re not a good police officer.”
After graduating from high school in 1978 and going to college for a bit, Larson joined the Army, and even there, his twin interests intertwined, since his fellow soldiers thought he was an undercover military police officer.
He was strait-laced and earned the nickname “the Preacher” because he quelled a brewing fight one night in the barracks by reading aloud “the perfect verse” from Proverbs. He took to reading a chapter from Proverbs nightly, and soon, the barracks wouldn’t settle down for the night until he’d read one.
Finding the right balance in each of his chosen fields was a challenge. “In the Army they told me I wasn’t hard enough and when I became a police officer they told me I was a little too tough sometimes, so I had to learn to tone it down.”
He’s 6-4, which usually worked in his favor, since most people didn’t want to tangle with him. But, “I literally scared people sometimes just because of my size, and I had to think about that a lot.”
Larson actually did two stints in the military, and between them, he worked plain clothes security in Portland for the downtown Meier & Frank “which was like working in a combat zone,” he said.
Larson made more arrests and got in far more fights as a security agent than as a police officer, he said. After his first stint in the Army, he got his bachelor’s degree from Portland State University in Administration of Justice, and since he was in the ROTC program, he went back into the Army immediately upon graduation.
As soon as he left the military the second time, he began applying for law enforcement jobs, and was soon hired by The Dalles Police Department. He started on his 35th birthday in 1995.
What drew him to The Dalles was “no parking meters. No kidding. After fighting with parking in Portland for so many years, that was a breath of fresh air.”
The job had its funny moments.
He recounted a kid who lived recklessly, one day bombing down Union Street on a bike with no brakes—he unsurprisingly wrecked and got a head injury—then weeks later walking atop the barriers along the freeway.
Officers at the station knew the barrier-walker was the reckless boy based on the clothing description, since they’d just gone out on a call involving him where he’d mooned a woman who defended him against bullies.
Upon hearing about the boy’s balancing act on the highway barrier, a senior officer pretended to key up the radio mic, and said, “’Oh, that’s just natural selection. Over.’”
Larson recounted, “We fell out of our chairs, we laughed so hard we had tears coming out of our eyes.”
The job had plenty of scary moments, too, of course, “From driving fast and almost wrecking to ‘Am I going to have to shoot somebody?’ to ‘Am I going to get AIDS because somebody bit me’ or where I got a whole bunch of blood on me in a fight.”
As he neared retirement last spring, he was “within a hair breadth” of shooting someone. A fellow officer ended up firing the fatal shots that killed a man who was firing a weapon into a neighbor’s house.
At one point during that incident, Larson stumbled. “I thought I’d been shot, then realized I stepped in a hole. I was the one that was engaging him with verbal commands while some other people were also yelling at him. I had my weapon light on him, a super bright light on the end of my rifle, and I was giving him commands and he was still shooting that rifle. Then it went downhill from there. Of course, you know the ending.”
“I did not expect the impact that that had on me. I had trouble sleeping, I’d zone out mid-conversation, I had trouble concentrating and I guess I just thought it would never affect me that way, and that was at least to a degree foolish thinking on my part.”
He did fire his weapon once before in the line of duty, when he shot a pit bull off of a fellow officer, Sgt. Dan Nelson, who’d tripped backward on a tree root and was on the ground trying to beat the dog off him with his baton. Larson fired three times, and all three shots hit the dog.
Severe downsides abounded in his work. “Things like telling a family member that someone has been killed or passed away, that’s tough to do. Death scenes where people have been deceased for awhile in the heat, those are tough.”
He also saw the downside of human nature. At first, his blood pressure spiked when people lied to him, but he eventually realized it was just human nature and sort of a defense mechanism for some, and he should just expect it.
He learned that some women use tears to get out of a ticket, while men use either deception or threats.
“Some people have a lot more hubris than others. I’ve seen people talk themselves into jail just by screaming, yelling and interfering on a call. You tell them to stop interfering and they just can’t do it, they’ve got too much alcohol and pride involved.”
He’s been flirted with on the job too. Once, a woman he knew grabbed his behind as he walked by her in uniform as she was with a group of friends. “I jumped. I was just incredulous. I was just beside myself. I couldn’t believe she would do that.”
Asked if that was actually a crime, he said emphatically, “Yeah! Jiminy! Reverse it.” A man, he implied, would’ve been arrested for doing that to a woman.
Then there was the time he pulled over a cute girl in a sports car. He realized only after the stop that his fly was unzipped the whole time, and was right at her eye level. “I went back to the station and told the guys and that was probably another mistake; they busted my chops about that for months, maybe longer.”
One of the biggest changes he’s seen in his career is how much harder it is to properly document and investigate a drunk driving arrest. “They keep adding more rules and regulations and it’s like they’re trying to find a way to get people off the hook.”
“If you don’t read them this admonition or give them this form, then the whole thing can be dismissed. It gets to be frustrating.”
He’s also seen growing homelessness, and while he believes most are probably homeless due to their own actions, he has compassion for them. “I believe we should be sensitive to their plight. I’ve often thought, what if it was me? But I can tell you this, if it was me, it wouldn’t be a messy campsite. Seriously, clean your stuff up. Is that too much to ask? I think people would be far more tolerant if they’d just cleaned up after themselves.”
As to his belief that some people are just cut out for police work, he recounted the time he had a civilian on a ridealong and an intense incident happened. A robbery call came over the radio, he responded, then saw a truck in the middle of the road near the crime scene, engine running, a door open. He intuitively knew it was involved, and then it began speeding toward him as he was standing in the road.
As he briefly considered shooting at the charging vehicle he flashed to a horrible future headline in the Chronicle: “The Dalles police officer shoots robbery victim.” He held off, and sure enough, after the driver was stopped, he was indeed the victim.
Larson’s passenger “seemed scared and while police work can be scary in some cases, it’s about confronting dangerous situations and it’s almost become cliché in today’s profession, but we do run toward the sound of gunfire.”
He’s seen civilian riders who are clearly suited to the work. Often, they have a military background and “the bearing that goes with it. Often, they want to help, they’re not intimidated by the potential for danger.”
As for writing tickets, he famously ticketed the city’s municipal court judge, the late Ron Somers, many years ago for not wearing a seatbelt. It was National Seatbelt Awareness Week, he’d given him warnings before, and he’d even asked the judge’s law partner to please ask him to buckle up.
Larson paid a price for his ticketing decision. Nobody in the department supported what he did, he said, and he lost every case before Somers for awhile.
But if he had to do it over again, he would. “It was the right thing to do.”
It just bothered Larson to see the judge finding people guilty of not wearing seat belts when he himself didn’t follow the law.
Larson said other officers used to joke that he would ticket his own mother. But he would just joke back, “I wouldn’t have ticketed my mother—I would’ve asked somebody else to do it.”
“I’m telling you, if the average citizen is sitting in our spot, sitting in our patrol car, if they see something egregious, they’d feel the same way, they’d say that person needs a citation.”
He got his share of complaints in his career. “Oh yeah, I seemed to generate a few. I know I earned some of them,” but he said some people “are just mean.” He was grateful for the advent of body cameras since they documented a contact.
“Some drunks get mean, they threaten your family, say they’ll get you on your day off. We’d just pull out a recorder and say, ‘Hey I’m recording,’ and most of them would just continue on with the vitriol. One of the unpleasant aspects of the job.”
But there were also upsides: “The satisfaction of helping people. When you can look at a little child and give them a hug; an adult who’s hurting and you’ve helped them.”
Since retiring, his lower back hurts a little less now that he’s not wearing a duty belt. He’s also feeling better now that he’s not doing shiftwork.
Achy back and bleary eyes aside, he said, “I think it’s a great career, it’s not for everybody though. It takes a certain kind of person to do the job, but I’ve enjoyed doing it, I’ve enjoyed working with a great bunch of guys and gals over two decades and I’ve enjoyed working for the city of The Dalles.”