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," recalls 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."
Dog bans and other rules enacted by the City Council at the request of the University Business Association alleviated some of problems (many offenders owned dogs and so avoided the area), but the neighborhood also benefitted from Ellis's presence and skill for dealing with people. His philosophy: "If you're going to be here, you're going to obey the rules."
On one typically erratic Eugene day, the kind that can't decide if it will rain or shine, Ellis is patrolling in his blue police cruiser. His window is rolled down and his freckled arm rests leisurely on the edge. With 43 years on the force, the barrel-chested and mustachioed Ellis is intimately familiar with the West University area. "You just have to keep your hand on it to keep it from getting too far out of control," he says, grasping the wheel as he pulls down a narrow alley off East 11th Avenue.
As he patrols the streets, Ellis makes sure he recognizes faces in the neighborhood. 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. "You want people to feel comfortable, like, 'Jeez! We see the same cop all the time,'" Ellis says.
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." His years of daily contact with street denizens of all stripes has allowed Ellis to hone his senses and recognize the subtle differences between a real threat and one that's just talk.
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."
Retired Duck Store manager Jim Williams '68, who worked in the neighborhood for 36 years, has watched Ellis grow into his position. "It's a rare person that does what Randy does. He just has that heart and soul that makes it all work," Williams says. "I think he's got a ministry here."
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. At first, Ellis paid for the items out-of-pocket and collected used boots from his fellow police officers around the holidays. But as members of the community realized that his efforts were addressing a genuine humanitarian need, they started writing Ellis checks and piling items in the West University substation. "If you have the ability to help people, and you don't do that, you're wrong," Ellis says.
Back in the cruiser, he makes his rounds of the neighborhood. Spotting Susan, a homeless woman rolling a shopping cart, he pulls to the curb. "How's Susan today?" he asks. She grins and laughs. They have a history. Ellis has lent Susan his cell phone on occasion so she can check in with her sister—on other days he has assisted Susan when she has become disoriented and lost in her own world.
Susan occasionally buys Ellis packaged cookies. Some people are amazed that he accepts them, let alone eats them. But Ellis shows a level of respect and understanding for the people he works with that exceeds most expectations. "If you don't accept it, you could totally destroy somebody," he says. "Most people want to be treated well and most people deserve to be treated well."
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.
"What Randy is good at is coming up with these creative solutions to human problems," says Deborah Healey '76, PhD '93, secretary for the West University Neighbors.
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."
Ellis admits that on occasion the job makes him feel cynical, but he still wakes up each day and puts on his uniform. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of the time I look forward to coming to work. It could be a challenge. It could be boring. You never know. It's usually fun. It's kind of what you make it," he says. "You don't do something like this for any glory."
—By Brenna Houck