Erick Bengel: Everyday People: Crime drama fan found second career with the Astoria police

Jul. 4—Terri Peden, the administrative services manager at the Astoria Police Department, recently retired after more than 23 years.

Soon after joining the department in January 1999, she began to wonder if she would stick around.

Within weeks of her arrival, the department's computer system crashed, wiping out all digital case records.

"We had nothing," she remembered. "You couldn't call us up and ask us about anybody ... It was like we'd just started working."

Then, shortly before Valentine's Day, a 7-year-old girl went missing. Her 16-year-old neighbor had kidnapped, sexually abused and strangled her and hid her body in his basement. Without records to review, police had trouble helping the FBI and local crime team.

Amid the homicide investigation, the department was training on a new phone system.

All of this with Y2K — the millennium bug — looming.

"I'd go home at night and I'd tell my husband, 'I don't know if I really made the right decision here. This is crazy. If this is the way it's going to be every day, I don't know if I can handle this,'" Peden recalled.

She could handle it. She stayed. And the police department became Peden's second career.

Peden had already polished off more than two decades in banks and credit unions. A Knappa High School graduate, she met her husband in Astoria while he was in the U.S. Coast Guard. Their family moved around the country, from Alabama to Alaska, for his transfers before returning to the North Coast.

One day, Peden, a crime drama geek, saw an opening at the police department. "I'm like, 'Oh, I'm going to apply for that.'"

Peden worked under four chiefs — Rob DeuPree, Pete Curzon, Brad Johnston and Geoff Spalding. Her last day was Thursday. Stacy Kelly stepped into the chief role on Friday.

Peden has seen the department evolve, adapt to digital technology, get more equipment, such as tasers and body cameras for officers and mobile data terminals for their vehicles. The checklist that comes with newly hired officers — from ordering uniforms to signing them up in software programs that track their progress — has grown from a few items to a few pages.

Early on, she worked as the evidence custodian, processing items seized in crimes — sending them to a crime lab, holding them for safe keeping, or returning them to their owners.

In 2001, she started supervising the department's records and finances, including managing grants. She initiated and helped compile the grant application that in 2011 brought the city $1.5 million from the Oregon Department of Emergency Management for the seismic rehab of the Public Safety Building, which houses the city's police and fire departments and dispatch center on 30th Street.

The upgrade is designed to help the city's emergency response survive a megaquake and tsunami. "If we ever have a tsunami, we will be the little castle surrounded by a moat," she said.

It's been a fascinating job filled with new and different information, she said. This includes glimpses into human darkness and depravity.

Of all the case evidence — all the weaponry and rape kits and money and drugs — that passed through the department in Peden's time, the piece that stands out is the baby bottle that someone had converted into a meth pipe. For a while, the department showed the specimen to students in its Citizen Police Academy.

"That's gotta be one of the weirdest and most interesting things I've seen," she said. Evil, yes. "But, then again, boy, that's ingenious, to think that you could do that."

Among the toughest parts of the job, she said, is seeing the children who come in after facing domestic violence. "You can just see how lost they are — the look on their face, you know," she said. "They just don't know what to do."

The department keeps stuffed animals on hand. "It's amazing what a difference it makes for them if they can have something to cuddle up to like this" — she demonstrated — "when they're out there and their mom's in tears, and they don't know what's going on."

Law enforcement has suffered a reputational blow because of notorious examples of abuse — the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis most notably — and it has become harder to attract candidates to the field. News consumers are seeing only a partial and often tainted view of the profession rather than trying to understand the full picture, she believes.

Peden remembers a time when an opening would attract scores of applicants. Now Astoria is struggling to find five candidates for an officer position. Here, as elsewhere, officer, dispatch and records positions go unfilled for long periods, she observed.

"It amazes me that there isn't more of an interest in this kind of thing," she said. "And I guess it's because I love it so much. I find it interesting every day."