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Kotek appoints Portland law enforcement veteran to helm state corrections agency

Mike Reese, a former Multnomah County sheriff, will be the next director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, Gov. Tina Kotek announced on Tuesday.

Kotek appointed Reese to lead the state’s 12,000-inmate, 12-prison system, which faces scrutiny for its treatment of inmates, calls for reform and accusations of a retaliatory culture, including from former high-ranking officials within the agency. Reese, 66, is a former Portland Police Bureau police chief who was elected sheriff of Oregon’s largest county in 2016 and retired in 2022. He will start his new job on Nov. 13, which pays a $241,224 annual salary. 

Kotek is picking an established figure in Oregon’s law enforcement community for the high-profile position. But an advocacy group says Kotek’s choice represents the status quo for a troubled agency.

From his first day, Reese will face challenges on multiple fronts. At Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, a state report found a hostile environment where employees and inmates feared mistreatment if they reported wrongdoing, including sexual misconduct, at the women’s prison in Wilsonville. Kotek has convened an advisory panel that meets behind closed doors to make recommendations.

 Mike Reese (Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek’s office)

Earlier this year, the state paid more than $3 million in settlement and legal costs after losing a lawsuit filed by two agency employees who alleged they faced retaliation after raising concerns about inaccurate data in a presentation for state lawmakers. That lawsuit blamed Heidi Steward, the current acting director of the corrections agency, and Colette Peters, the former agency director who became head of the federal Bureau of Prisons last year. A related lawsuit is ongoing.

In a statement, Kotek indicated she picked Reese because of his more than three decades of law enforcement experience. 

“I have confidence in incoming Director Reese’s ability to bring a clear vision and advance the organizational and cultural changes needed to bring forward the next chapter at DOC,” Kotek said. “He has an unparalleled record within the public safety sector for being a collaborator and a problem-solver, guided by justice, equity and a commitment to uphold the public’s trust.”

An advocacy group for incarcerated Oregonians is concerned about that same record and how equity has played out in Portland law enforcement agencies. For example, a Multnomah County audit of the jail released in 2022 flagged disproportionate numbers of misconduct citations for Black inmates and poor jail conditions for people with mental health conditions.

“Mike Reese’s background as Multnomah County Sheriff and with the Portland Police Bureau is littered with controversies,” Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said in a statement to the Capital Chronicle. 

“These agencies have had profound problems with accountability, violence against members of the community, and bigoted and biased practices that have disproportionately harmed (minorities and people of color),” Singh said, adding that the agency needs change. 

“His appointment is doubling down on a historic value system that has resulted in and sustained mass incarceration,” Singh said.

Reese was unavailable for an interview. When asked about the Multnomah County audit, Elisabeth Shepard, a spokeswoman for Kotek, declined to comment. 

In the press release, Reese said he wants to see the agency do better.

“As DOC director, I will do my very best to lead this department, our staff and adults in custody towards better outcomes,” he said in the release. “The Department of Corrections is a core pillar of our public safety system. Our ability to adequately rehabilitate adults in custody and recruit, train and retain a skilled workforce driven by accountability, integrity and professionalism has a direct impact on Oregon communities and I am resolved to ensure these standards are met.”

Reese’s law enforcement career started in 1989, when he became a deputy at the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. After five years, he joined the Portland Police Bureau, where he became the police chief. In 2016, he was elected sheriff of Multnomah County, working in that role until his retirement in 2022. He has two degrees from Portland State University: a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an executive master’s degree in public administration.

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