Steven Romero, shown in the chief's office, reflects on his time at the helm of the Ontario City Police Department. (Enterprise file photo)

ONTARIO – As he prepared to depart Ontario, Steven Romero, who served as the city’s police chief for a little over two years, said he is leaving an agency that was “underfunded and understaffed,” hamstrung by an outdated perspective on policing that does not align with Ontario’s new reality.

“The city of Ontario has urban-level issues that are beginning to manifest themselves, yet we’re still approaching it with a rural mindset and capacity,” Romero said in an interview with the Enterprise. “We’re using old capacity that worked back in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s when this was a less populated region, when the urbanization hadn’t really taken place. Now that we’re a micropolitan area, with constituent cities that are really bringing a great deal of activity in on a regular basis, we’re still responding with the same capacity we used 20 years ago.”

Romero served his last day in Ontario on Oct. 29. Lt. Jason Cooper is serving as interim police chief as city officials finish consideration of applicants for the job. A new chief is expected to be hired in the coming months.

During his tenure from June 2019 to October, Romero oversaw significant changes in Ontario, most notably the introduction of marijuana dispensaries in 2019. He said that the introduction of the dispensaries created new needs in public safety that aren’t being met. 

“You’ve really invited and enticed a lot of outside folks that otherwise wouldn’t come here,” he said. “The growth of the public safety services here are not staying in step with the demand of the community and the growth of the community.” 

Romero cited a murder at a dispensary in 2020 and the general phenomenon of marijuana customers driving in and out of Ontario while under the influence as examples of some of the issues created by the industry. 

He blamed Measure 110, the legislation which effectively decriminalized hard drugs in Oregon this year, for what he said was a significant uptick in mentally ill people apprehended in Ontario. 

“There is no wraparound service (for mental health) that exists in all of eastern Oregon,” Romero said. “The services that are available for the mentally ill and drug addicted, in my opinion, are less than adequate...The state is way behind on the times when it comes to having an intervention system.”

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said that Romero was correct in pointing out that so far, none of the state funding apportioned by Measure 110 to recovery centers has been sent to Ontario.

Romero signaled a more prosaic concern – traffic enforcement – as an example of where the agency has room to grow. 

Although the agency is currently at its largest since Romero took over, with 25 officers, he asserted that is not enough. 

He noted as one example that the city department has no officer assigned to traffic duty.

As a result, he said, Ontario has a “voluminous amount” of traffic accidents, averaging 40 a month. 

“This agency is very reactive, it’s more reactive than proactive,” Romero said. “I attribute it both to culture and to workload. The workload here is truly at times unreasonable for what you can expect from any one person...That creates a condition where you’re at risk for burnout, especially in a dynamic high-risk high-output profession like law enforcement and particularly in a city like Ontario.”

Romero said he had come to Ontario looking for a slower pace after 30 years of police work in the suburbs of Los Angeles. 

He said he’d been surprised by the similarity between Ontario’s problems and those of his hometown of Hawthorne, California. 

In Ontario, he said, “it became more challenging because (there) I had financial resources and capacity to respond to issues that here I do not.”

Romero said that beyond a mere lack of financial support, he felt that during his tenure the culture of Ontario city government had become increasingly unsupportive of his efforts to modernize the police department. He specifically cited the Ontario City Council.

“During my initial arrival, it was an incredible experience,” Romero said. “I felt that the elected body at the time was more progressive and more supportive of public safety. However, since January of this year, I have seen a drastic shift.”

Romero said that he was leaving in the hopes of finding a working environment where “the big visions and dreams and initiatives” that he wanted to pursue would be more possible. 

Those include embracing a forward-thinking model of policing.

“The big push of 21st century policing is community engagement and connection,” Romero said. “We don’t have a community affairs office. We don’t have a community lead officer. We don’t do that on a regular basis, but yet the community expects and wants to connect with its police professionals, and it’s tough to do that when you’re just chasing the radio or there’s just not value for it in the culture.”

“I think there’s support for public safety,” said Brown. “I think how we get there and how we do it is what’s up for debate. We’re trying to take a long-term approach where we pay down our debt so it’s sustainable when we right-size our police department. I don’t think anyone disagrees that it’s not a large enough sized force to handle our town.” 

Romero is leaving the Ontario Police Department as it undergoes an audit, a process which began this past summer after $900 was discovered missing from the evidence room. He said that the timing of the audit did not prompt his decision to resign, and that if anything, he worried about leaving the agency without leadership during a fragile time. 

“Let me be really clear on one thing: the chief of police is the one who ordered the investigations and the audit,” Romero said. “He is not the subject of the investigation. He is not the one under suspicion of the missing evidence. He is the one that is responsible for having it investigated and resolved.”

Romero said that he was leaving Ontario with “new lifelong friendships” and the satisfaction of obtaining new gear for the police department, including a tactical armored vehicle, ballistic protection shields and handguns,. 

He also leaves a branch of his wrestling club, Cobra Wrestling, which has operated in both Oregon and Idaho and works to steer youth toward careers in the military or law enforcement. 

“Boy, that guy’s got an engine like nobody else,” said Brown, referring to Romero. “He just thrust himself into the community. He really gets in really quick and makes some really deep relationships.”

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM - Available for $5 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for - day in and day out from the Enterprise.