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Character Mattered

Vern Wells helped restore credibility to department

Independence Police Chief Vern Wells stands in front of the fountain at Riverview Park, a place he had a hand in making safe and welcoming for families. Wells also helped clean up downtown Independence, combating drug dealers along the way. He has led the Independence Police Department for 26 years by example and community policing. Say farewell to the retiring chief from 3 to 6 p.m. on Friday at the Independence Event Center.

Photo by Emily Mentzer

Independence Police Chief Vern Wells stands in front of the fountain at Riverview Park, a place he had a hand in making safe and welcoming for families. Wells also helped clean up downtown Independence, combating drug dealers along the way. He has led the Independence Police Department for 26 years by example and community policing. Say farewell to the retiring chief from 3 to 6 p.m. on Friday at the Independence Event Center.

January 21, 2014

INDEPENDENCE — When Vern Wells first took the job as chief of the Independence Police Department in 1987, he had a laundry list of things to combat.

Now, 26 years later, he leaves the department in a better place than he found it: a new police station, a safe and comfortable downtown area, families in Riverview Park, and respect from other law enforcement agencies top the list of accomplishments.

"We had a lot of internal issues, as well as not a lot of respect from the community," Wells, 60, said, "so we had a lot of things we had to deal with."

Wells started turning things around by placing an emphasis on integrity and core values in the department, and better training.

"We began to see some respect from the community," he said.

His next job was to curb crime in downtown and get people out using city parks again.

Wells' firm belief in community policing helped make a difference on both counts.

"Community policing is a lot about how to find the root cause of the problem," he said. "Quit just going out and taking the reports. Figure out what's causing the crime and deal with that."

Wells also believes in combating crime with less typical "cop stuff."

"Criminals are afraid of law-abiding citizens, and light. And cameras," he said.

One of his success stories involves a gang problem at Henry Hill Park. A big fight with chains and clubs was reported there. He and another officer responded.

"I said I'll come help you out, but get your camera. When we get there, let's not try and arrest anybody, let's just take pictures," Wells recalled.

As soon as they started taking pictures, most of the people involved in the fight left.

"They were afraid of us catching them in the act of their craziness," he said. "It's funny what criminals are truly afraid of."

He said one of the biggest challenges still ahead for Independence police — and all local governments — is finances.

Independence chief badge

Independence Chief badge

"We don't have a good way to finance local government," he said. "Until we figure that out, we're going to be having a problem."

Financial issues have led to cutbacks of three people in the Independence PD, as well as cuts in outreach and school programs.

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Still, the reported crime rate is half of what it was 26 years ago, so Wells hopes efforts made in the past have helped people in the community understand there are lawful ways to resolve issues.

"My fear is if we don't get back in the schools in the fairly near future, we'll see a change in those kind of behaviors," Wells said.

He hopes his replacement will continue to believe in community policing and be a genuinely moral person.

"It's character first," he said. "Capability can be trained. I hope they hire somebody with extremely high character."

After retirement, Wells and his wife, Nancy, plan to travel, something they've put off for a long time.

Wells would particularly like to visit the southern states.

Police Chief Vern Wells, circa 1988, with a McGruff the Crime Dog outfit that was Wells’ first success in grant writing for the department in Independence.

Courtesy of Vern Wells

Police Chief Vern Wells, circa 1988, with a McGruff the Crime Dog outfit that was Wells’ first success in grant writing for the department in Independence.

"I see those movies of the South, and I've never been there," he said. "I'd like to drive around some of the back country and see if people are really like they are on TV and in the movies."

He'd also like to contribute more to the Monmouth-Independence Community Foundation and do some fishing.

"I'd kind of like to get to writing a little," he added, though he doesn't intend to write crime stories.

"The problem is, it's a small town," Wells said. "Even though I'd change the names, people would know who I was writing about."

Wells, who grew up in Polk County, graduated from Central High School and later Oregon Education College (Western Oregon University). He had wanted to be in law enforcement since a young age.

He started as a full-time officer in 1974, and served as a reserve officer before he was 21, which is unusual.

Who: Vern Wells, Independence Police Chief

Age: 60

Years in law enforcement: 40, 26 as chief of Independence PD

Least favorite college class: Art. He earned a D on an art project involving putting five triangles on a piece of paper. The art teacher said it lacked originality.

Say farewell: Attend an open house for Wells from 3 to 6 p.m. on Friday at the Independence Civic Center. RSVP: kjohnson@ci.independence.or.us.

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