Local government

Johnson steps into Malheur County sheriff’s position

VALE – Newly-appointed Malheur County Sheriff Travis Johnson remembers 2012 as the hardest time.

Johnson was then three years into a new career as a sheriff’s deputy when Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe approached with an offer.

He wanted to promote Johnson to undersheriff, a key second-in-command slot.

Johnson was honored but wary.

“I told him it will make a lot of people mad and it would probably be better if I had a little more law enforcement experience,” said Johnson.

Wolfe, though, was insistent.

“He came back and said, ‘I need you to do this for me,’” said Johnson.

So, Johnson accepted the position.

“It was not well received by a lot of people, people who I think must have wanted the position or who didn’t want someone who was as young and green as me telling them what to do,” said Johnson.

The next two years, he said, were “the hardest of my life.”

He said he found it a “big challenge to overcome and gain the trust of our team here.”

Last week, more than a decade after he became the undersheriff, Johnson stood in a packed Malheur County Circuit Courtroom and was sworn in as the 16th sheriff of Malheur County, succeeding the retiring Wolfe. Johnson will fill out the reminder of Wolfe’s term as sheriff. Wolfe was reelected to a four-year term in 2020.

“It was kind of an adrenaline rush mixed within some nerves. It was nice to see so much support there. It is encouraging to have that many people show up,” he said.

After he was sworn in by Circuit Judge Lung Hung, Wolfe pinned a new sheriff’s badge on Johnson’s uniform.

Johnson, who started at the sheriff’s office in 2009, said last week he doesn’t plan on any major changes as sheriff.

“My plan is to continue similar to what Sheriff Wolfe did. To stand up for what we believe in. Stand up for the Constitution of the United States and let our governor and our legislators know what we believe in on the eastern side of the state,” said Johnson.

Born and raised in Vale, Johnson said a career in law enforcement wasn’t a goal when he was in high school.

“I went through the automotive program at the high school and have a degree in automotive tech and thought that was what I’d always be doing,” he said.

Johnson earned his degree in automotive tech from Weber State University and then went to work for the Ford Motor Company in Seattle as a technical representative.

“We worked with dealerships on the service side of things. When they had a problem with a vehicle that was hard to repair or training issues, I worked on that type of stuff,” he said.

The job, though, put Johnson on the road often and he missed spending time with his growing family. He married his wife, April, in 2001.

 “When we had our first child, I realized it (the job) was not necessarily something I wanted to do. I wanted to be home with my family,” said Johnson.

Johnson quit Ford in 2004 and moved back to his family farm in Malheur County.

He spent the next few years working on his parent’s farm. Eventually, he said, he ran into Wolfe, who was then the undersheriff.

“He mentioned to me I should consider a career in law enforcement. So, I did. We have a big family and had some tough times on the farm. It was a little bit of a struggle so getting into law enforcement at the time was a good choice for my family,” said Johnson.

Johnson said one attribute people should know about working at the sheriff’s office is “often times there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.”

“It is a lot deeper than what people see day to day. We, as a team, work hard and take everything into consideration when we make our decisions,” he said.

Johnson said he and his 53 employees must “take into account the big picture.”

“There is just a lot to the sheriff’s office. There are over 900 statutes that regulate the sheriff and tell us what we can and cannot do. Most people don’t realize how many responsibilities we have, from search and rescue to the jail to community corrections,” he said.

Johnson, 45, said the best part of his job is interacting with local residents.

“I really do like people. And there are some really amazing and fascinating people in our community that I get to intermingle with,” he said.

Wednesday, Johnson, with his badge less than 24 year’s old, was driving around town chatting with local residents. He stopped by Malheur Drug to talk with owner Adam Tolman about the state’s gun registration system. As he stood with Tolman and talked, several people walked by and congratulated Johnson on his new role.

Johnson said he draws inspiration from his family.

“I try to be a good example and leader to them and show them what a good member of a community does,” he said.

Johnson said he is available 24 hours, seven days a week. He said he awakens each morning, takes a cold shower and gulps down a cup of beet juice and heads out the door.

“There are a lot of health benefits (to a cold shower). It gives you a good dump of serotonin and energizes you and gets your blood flowing,” he said.

He said he is proud of his children, Riley, 19, Diesel, 17, Clare, 15 and Tucker, 10.

“They make me proud to see the things they are doing,” said Johnson.

He said the key to his success, though, is his wife.

“She is my biggest supporter. I can confide in her and I appreciate her opinion and wisdom and her confidence in everything I do,” he said.

Johnson said the biggest challenge facing law enforcement is an “anti-cop” attitude in many areas of the nation.

“We need to overcome that, show people we are overwhelmingly good and do good things. That a very small percentage of bad things have happened and are being highlighted at a much higher level than they are happening. So, it is important we remain professional,” said Johnson.

Johnson said if he could do anything else, he’d probably be a farmer.

“I love the dirt and equipment and my background in automobile repair I can use on the farm,” he said.

Johnson said he’d like the public to know there are a great group of people working at the sheriff’s office.

“We are trying to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason. But understand, we are human and not perfect,” he said.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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