The last three University of Oregon Police Department chiefs left before fulfilling their contracts. After the latest chief — Carolyn McDermed — retired unexpectedly, UOPD began the search for a replacement for the fourth time in a decade.
Last September, the University of Oregon hired Matthew Carmichael as chief of UOPD. Carmichael says the experience he has gained in past police service will help him rebuild Oregon’s police department into the service he says it should be.
“I want to be that catalyst that helps reduce sexual assault on campus. I want to be that department and team that reduces bike theft. I want to make sure that no student walks alone at night.”
Carmichael’s innovative style of leadership is something no other chief has brought to campus. UO’s police chief is mixing it up with students in the EMU and making UO crime logs more easily available to the public online.
Carmichael has been working as a law enforcement officer for 33 years. Previously he served as chief of police at UC Davis. He became chief at the UCDPD following an incident at UC Davis where police pepper sprayed Occupy protesters in 2011 with military-grade pepper spray.
Carmichael is set on making a difference during his time at UO. His first step is to foster a stronger relationship between UOPD and the campus community by finding ways to connect with students and campus groups so UOPD can better understand their needs and concerns.
Carmichael’s initial work toward achieving these goals was hiring student workers such as Maria Mbodj, a pre-business administration major, to help out at the UOPD office. Mbodj and students like her help with design work, manage social media and often accompany Carmichael to various meetings with student groups to help guide their talks toward the most important issues.
Mbodj has been impressed with Carmichael’s effort so far; she feels he has made a strong effort to understand the needs of the campus community.
“So far we’ve started working on presentations on alcohol, sexual education and all the things that might end up making someone’s experience at UO bad,” Mbodj said.
Carmichael also plans to expand the SafeRide program using UOPD funds and enlist student volunteers for campus security.
One of Carmichael’s main projects for campus is creating a unified lost and found program run by UOPD. Currently, each building has its own lost and found system, forcing students to backtrack for their missing items. Carmichael’s new program will provide a centralized location on campus to recover items, as well as introduce a website to help students report and recover lost items.
According to Jennifer Garcia, the current interim police chief at the UCDPD who worked with Carmichael for many years, Carmichael has always been known for having big ideas but also for having the drive and planning ability to implement even the most surprising of them.
“He was always a deep thinker. He has lots of big ideas and likes to play them out and experiment a little bit. It’s like thinking outside the box,” Garcia said. “He was always a fun and happy person who was really good to work with.”
Despite his optimism, Carmichael has inherited a tense situation at UOPD due to the whistleblowing incident of 2012, an ensuing lawsuit and the abrupt departure of the previous police chief. But Carmichael has been in worse situations before.
On Nov. 18, 2011, two UCDPD officers sprayed several unarmed and seated protestors in the face with military-grade pepper spray. The incident went viral in a matter of hours, which drew global attention and put both the school and UCDPD in a tense position.
Both officers involved and the UCDPD police chief were placed on administrative leave soon after. On the Saturday following the event, Carmichael, a lieutenant at the time, received an offer to become the acting police chief for UCDPD.
Initially Carmichael declined the job offer. But after thinking it over, considering the gravity of the situation and talking with his family, Carmichael decided this would be the best opportunity for him to make a difference in a troubled time for law enforcement in the U.S.
“My wife and I talked it through and thought maybe we could have a positive impact,” Carmichael said. “I stepped outside myself a bit and thought, hopefully, we could make things better.”
Carmichael confronted the storm of outrage and controversy facing UC Davis, something that often brought out the more serious side of his upbeat personality.
“Even though he liked to joke around and have fun, he had this serious side to him. When it was time for business, it was time to do business,” said Lieutenant James Barbour, a fellow officer at UCDPD who had worked with Carmichael starting in 2004. “He’d often try to inject humor into the process, but only when it was appropriate.”
Carmichael estimates that during the pepper spray scandal, UCDPD received at least 4,000 formal complaints from callers around the nation. That wasn’t the only source of hostility Carmichael and the department faced. As chief he was forced to make tough decisions and some, particularly those regarding personnel action, were not popular with the law enforcement community. Carmichael says he received “hate emails” from U.S. police officers in response to some of the decisions he made.
Ultimately, Carmichael’s efforts instilled a sense of trust between UCDPD and the UC Davis campus community. He carried the tone he set in those hectic first months throughout his tenure at UC Davis. Carmichael started an officer outreach program, established a monthly meeting to listen to the concerns of students and even recruited the department’s bomb dog, Charlie.
“He really put himself out there,” Garcia said. “He worked harder than all of us. He came in first and went home last, worked weekends and made himself available to students, staff, faculty and anyone who wanted to talk to the police department.”
When “Pokemon GO!” was released last summer, UC Davis, like many other campuses, needed to address the safety concerns the mobile game presented. Carmichael organized a massive “Pokemon GO!” event, where he invited the campus community to come play the game with UCDPD, reminding them to exercise caution while playing.
Carmichael believes that the UO community is very open and has given him an instant sense of belonging. He admires the university setting because of the many opportunities and experiences it opens for people who attend or visit.
At 52, Carmichael has no plans to stop working in law enforcement anytime soon, but even when he retires he envisions himself staying in a university community. He is considering studying geology later in his life because of his interest in stones. He enjoys scouring the desert and picking agates off the beach with his family during his free time.
“What’s different for UO is that there’s no mistaking where you’re at,” said Carmichael. “The UO, for us, is like that binder that brings the community together — the whole state, honestly. It’s very welcoming, it’s a comfortable place to be, but it makes you feel like you’re part of something greater.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of UO student Maria Mbodj. We are not in the business of name-changing and regret this error.