EPD's Randy Ellis brings distinctive style to policing the West University area

Aggressive panhandling, public drunkenness, and drug dealing—20 years ago the stretch of East 13th Avenue just west of campus was a magnet for these illegal activities. Shops had bricks thrown through their windows and customers were calling in to see if it was safe to enter the neighborhood.

"The businesses were fed up. The students were fed up, and the other users of the area—the people have to come in here to go to the hospital or go to the university or do shopping—were fed up," recalled Randy Ellis, who has been a beat cop in the area for much of the past 20 years. "It was a disaster zone, I never left the street."

Ellis's philosophy: "If you're going to be here, you're going to obey the rules."

With 43 years on the force, the barrel-chested and mustachioed Ellis is intimately familiar with the West University area. If he spots someone unfamiliar, he may take a moment to introduce himself. At other times a student, business owner, or resident may seek him out, flagging Ellis down from a street corner for a quick talk or some honest legal advice.

He makes conversation easily—even with those who may have, on occasion, threatened to kill him. "You have to be careful," he says, "Every now and again somebody is going to challenge you, and that's the guy I have to worry about."

Born in Los Angeles, Ellis attended Northwest Christian College (now Northwest Christian University) with the intention of becoming an associate youth pastor. But after graduating in 1970, he could not, with confidence, decide what to do next. As a "stopgap," Ellis responded to a newspaper ad seeking Eugene police officers. "Truthfully, I had never intended to stay here this long," he says, but working the streets has allowed him to tap into the theatrical element of preaching that he loved. Policing, he says, isn't a science, it's an art form. "I didn't have enough compassion to be a minister but I had enough concern to be a police officer."

Sheila Daughtry, owner of local business Rainbow Optics, also knows Ellis. She recalls how on one particularly chilly day, the officer came across several local homeless people seated on a curb drinking beers. After he poured out their alcohol, one of the men complained that he was hungry. "When he got off duty, Randy went over to 7-Eleven and they had hotdogs, four-for-a-dollar," Daughtry says. "He sat down with them and they all had hotdogs!"

Ellis's efforts in the neighborhood have helped inspire those who live and work in the area to get involved in his projects. For five years now he has collected clothing, sleeping bags, blankets, and other items in the fall to provide the homeless with supplies in time for the damp and sometimes bitterly cold Eugene winter.

When it comes to policing, Ellis is known for his unconventional tactics. Fourteen years ago the West University area saw a surge in graffiti. The city proposed plans to discourage taggers, such as creating designated graffiti walls, but Ellis had a different idea. He made a stencil and did some tagging of his own, expressing his feelings through art to the brazen vandals by adding "sucks" in neon pink paint to each piece of illegal graffiti. The label was an excellent deterrent, says Ellis, which helped discourage taggers looking to show off their work to friends.

Not every issue is as easily resolved. The afternoon is winding down, and Ellis is making one more pass through the neighborhood. A bicyclist waves him over, tipping Ellis off to some trespassers drinking in a nearby yard. In moments, he is confronting the group of transients. Addressing them by name, he lays out their options: Either give up the beers and leave with a ticket, or exit in handcuffs. Everyone in the group takes the easier option and they depart sullenly from the yard—with the exception of Robin, who slurs as he swears at the officer. Ellis handcuffs and escorts him into the back seat of the cruiser. While he sees this kind of resolution as a last resort, sometimes, Ellis says, it's necessary. "There's no nice way to arrest somebody," he says. "There just isn't."

- abridged from a story by Brenna Houck, for Oregon Quarterly