The Toughest Load

From The Oregonian, September 11, 2000

Barry Bogh answered his hotel-room door shirtless, wearing a look of surprise on his weathered face, and said, “Oh, hi, John,” as he bent to scoop a porn magazine off his bed.

“What’s that?” the parole officer asked.

“Oh, somebody left it by my door,” Barry said. At this hotel — pay in advance, ring the desk to get buzzed in from the street, above a downtown Portland strip club — that maybe really happened.

“Yeah, I get that all the time at my house,” the parole officer said, flipping through the magazine. He handed it back to Barry. Whatever. Barry’s not a sex offender; there’s nothing about pornography in his conditions of release. Instead, Barry sets little fires when he’s upset and was convicted of reckless burning in 1994. He lives a constant cycle of peace-becoming-stress-becoming-menacing behavior.

Officer John Harlan sees Barry at least every week, along with dozens of other clients of the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, in drop-in office visits, soup-kitchen lunches, and here, in surprise house calls, on an August Monday night.

In the small room with its sink and its twin bed, Harlan looked over piles of notebook papers swept across the worn dresser, each with neat columns of hand printed numbers. “Tell me again what these are, Barry.”

The arched eyebrows, the surprised look, like, oh, why do you ask? “Bus routes,” he said. He writes down the number of every passing city bus and the route it’s on that day, all day, he said, thinking someone from Tri-Met will pay him.

Harlan reminded him to keep the room clean and to come by the office in the morning. Same thing, every week.

Barry said sure, then asked, “I’m doing OK, aren’t I?”

Indeed, he’s looking better. A few months ago, he wasn’t eating right and landed in the hospital. Harlan made him write down his meals. Barry did, right down to the jelly on his toast. He’s 42.

“Yes, you are.”

Harlan can’t say the same about himself. Friends say he looks tired. His doctor says worse.

For four years, he’s worked downtown with the county’s toughest caseload — homeless, mostly sex offenders, paranoid, delusional, psychotic. The judge sentences them, and the public never hears about them again. But most of them get out of prison. And the ones who went in sick come out that way, to post-prison supervision. To Harlan.

They all carry his card. He gets 30 voice mails on a slow day. Some want to go back to prison. He told one guy no, and the man robbed a store that night. Others overdose on drugs, sometimes on their own medicine. Some cut themselves. Some blow off their medicine and sit all day in a bus stop, swearing at women.

Harlan became a fixture to crisis centers and police. You found who? Doing what? Call Harlan.

When he takes his wife out downtown, she knows better than to ask the hostess for an outside table. Someone is bound to walk up and start rattling off what he’s eaten that day.

He watched other people in the crucible of street-level mental health burn out. He went to their going-away lunches and thought it wouldn’t happen to him.

He thought it couldn’t get any worse. Something’s broken, you fix it, he thought, even as his caseload grew and his temper shortened, even as he hunted downtown for criminals — not to arrest, but to give them the medicine he carried in his pocket.

Harlan looks more like an accountant than a parole officer. Balding, with a soft jaw and soft hands, dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and old jeans, like the guy in the next cubicle, going a little overboard on casual Friday. Under the shirt, the bulletproof vest gives him some heft. His handcuffs and pistol are on his belt, hidden beneath a vinyl navy windbreaker. The mace stays in his pocket.

He looks like someone dressing up like a cop.

In a way, he is. Raised in a police family — his father was a Portland officer — he didn’t seem likely to end up a parole officer when he dropped out of high school in 1976.

He earned his GED at a community college, where he started a Greenpeace chapter and a student-advocacy program, majoring in sociology later at Principia College in Illinois. He took his diploma to Africa and the U.S. Peace Corps after graduation.

Not really acting like a cop.

He joined the U.S. Air Force reserves, saw the world and the 50 states, most of them on his motorcycle.

Back in Oregon, he worked with the International Refugee Center of Oregon, then for the Comprehensive Options for Drug Abusers. In 1993, he took a job with the county at the Forest Camp, a work program for inmates.

A year later, he became a parole officer — a social worker with a badge.

Mental health treatment for offenders was different then, more resources and services.

In 1997, the Oregon Health Plan’s mental-health component stopped repaying agencies for what they’d spent on services per client, switching to a flat rate. It might work great in rural Oregon, but things are different in Old Town, under the Steel Bridge.

Last year, Multnomah County’s contractors reported that per-client spending for mental health service had dropped from $440 in 1995 to $244 in 1999.

Harlan needed only pat his jacket pockets to track the system’s overload: “I never thought I would be handing out meds.” His office became a little mental-health agency.

“Sometimes that’s how John got in trouble,” said parole spokeswoman Maggie Miller, Harlan’s former partner. “They thought he was coddling his clients too much.”

“Having someone thrown in jail is easy,” she said. “It’s expensive and easy and doesn’t really help anyone.”

The hotel clerks love him. They’ve been sitting there for hours, smoking, watching TV, but when Harlan comes they become meticulous night watchmen, reporting his clients’ comings and goings as if they were detectives. So-and-so’s been in his room all day. So-and-so was at it last night with a girl upstairs. So-and-so’s handing out business cards, calling himself a shrink.

“Hey, we got some nice hot chocolate today,” one Broadway clerk says, chuckling, nodding toward the vending machine. Harlan bought a cup once, and took a few sips before he saw the floating dead roaches.

“Yeah?” Harlan plays along. “My last cup was great.”

“We should have charged you extra for the protein.”

The county can’t afford to be picky about client placement. Some start in group homes, and get kicked out, placed someplace else, kicked out, again and again, until a sex offender forbidden from associating with women has to stand in front of a strip club to get buzzed into his hotel.

Harlan works alone in these halls. Sometimes, he knocks on one door and three open.

“Oh, hi, John.”

“John, how’s it going?”

“John, check out my new poster.”

“John, I thought you were off on Mondays.”

It’s hard to sneak up on anyone.

Knock knock. He steps to the side, out of the line of fire, an old habit. Patrick opens the door, sporting tattoos beneath his eyes and boots with 4-inch soles, like something pinched backstage at a K.I.S.S. show.

The room is a mess, garbage bags full of clothes in the corner, food sitting on the dresser. Harlan scolds him. Even this hotel will kick him out.

“I’ve been after them to get me a vacuum cleaner,” Patrick protests. He’s a chatty guy on parole for murder. He claims to have an expertise in explosives, but that’s not what Harlan worries about.

“You got any knives?” he asks.

“No.” Pause. “Wait. Look in that jar of peanut butter.”

Harlan finds a plastic knife inside, and reseals the jar.

“I’m going to come back on Friday,” Harlan said. “Do me a favor. Everything that isn’t intrinsic to the building of a jet engine or something, can you get rid of it?”

Street-level mental-health treatment — part cop, part counselor, mostly baby-sitter: Take your medicine. What are you eating? Clean up this room.

Some days, they’re just about the only people he sees and talks to. The clients come to him on Fridays. He gives them a cup of coffee, a bus pass, a welfare check, a pack of cigarettes. Whatever keeps them coming back. Often, he’ll take a client or two to lunch, chatting about how the week’s going over the daily special at the Sisters of the Road Cafe.

“He has often said, ‘I can’t think of any more important work to do,’ ” said Meg Kaveny, a case worker with Project Respond, which steers homeless people with mental illnesses toward help.

“These are people who don’t garner a lot of sympathy with the public,” she said. “They’re not kids, they’re not cute. They’re committing crimes, and they smell bad. But he has the ability to connect with people who are difficult to connect with.”

Harlan lives with his wife and two young children in Washington state. It’s a half-hour’s drive from Portland without traffic, but it’s a million miles from work. He built the big, wooden house in the woods.

Slowly, over the years, the work days got longer. No point in leaving at 5 p.m. if he’d sit in traffic. Might as well go out and check on a few guys.

Then straight home. Sometimes, a million miles aren’t enough. Try hugging your kid in a bulletproof vest. Try consoling a depressed pedophile and changing a diaper in the same hour.

Harlan knocks and steps to the side, but the door moves, not shut all the way.

Inside, Steve, a convicted rapist in his 30s, sits shirtless on the edge of his bed, his belly hanging over his belt. He looks up, half in the room, half in his own world.

Before him is a small plate with neatly folded squares of gauze bandages. Steve has old scars down both biceps and on his chest; neat, thin rows of raised flesh. When he’s depressed, he hurts himself.

Harlan is instantly edgy, asking what’s going on, his eyes scanning the shelves, the sink, the medicine chest. Steve is upset because he failed a lie detector test the week before. It was the medication, the test administrator told him, nothing to worry about. But it panicked Steve, who doesn’t want to go back to jail.

“Do you have any razors?”

Steve points out one, and another, and another, and another. That, and the prepped bandages, is enough for Harlan to send him immediately to a psychiatric triage center for crisis counseling.

“You’re going straight there, right?”

“Yes, John.” Exasperated.

After Steve leaves, a neighboring door opens, and another one of Harlan’s clients says he could tell Steve was in trouble because he’d been playing Air Supply and Karen Carpenter music recently, and that he always does that before he cuts himself.

Harlan thanks him offhandedly and keeps walking down the hall.

Harlan was sitting at his desk one day in April when he felt his heart begin to pound.

He picked up the phone and called Project Respond, trusting them more than an anonymous ambulance.

“Even when I got to the hospital, I felt it going, boom-boom, boom-boom,” he said. “It was like someone was massaging my chest from the inside.”

He’s 39 years old. The doctor asked him if he’d been under stress.

He relaxed in the examining room, away from the work for a while. The doctor told him to cut back. Right.

He eliminated caffeine, started serving his clients decaf during their office visits.

But instead of less stress, he got a death threat, a phone call from a jail’s holding cell that spooked him. He was ordered to start carrying his pistol full time. Earlier this summer, he showed up at lunch in the upscale West Hills wearing his bulletproof vest. He joked about it, but still. He really hated bringing the gun home.

He started snapping at clients, less tolerant of the rambling tales of woe, the goofy excuses. “It just got depressing to come to work after a while,” he explained. “There’s no end to it. There’s no one who’s going to pick up the ball, no one who’s going to realize you’re overworked and do something about it. After a while, I just got jaded.”

“If society’s going to ignore them, then keep them in prison,” he snapped, almost to himself. “Don’t put them on my doorstep.”

Pause. “OK. I don’t believe that.”

“I’m not pleased as punch on this,” a wide-eyed Barry Bogh announces. “So last night I did not enjoy myself at karaoke. I feel like I’m a little too old for lectures.”

“I’d say you’re a little too old to be writing these letters,” Harlan said, rereading Bogh’s attempt at romance toward a hotel girl. “You refer to her as ‘airhead.’ ”

Another parole officer interrupts, about a client who’s harassing people.

Bogh’s amused. “Has it been this hectic all day?”

“All day. Every day.”

No more.

For Harlan, this day, Friday, Sept. 1, is his last downtown.

He put in for a transfer to a general caseload. Drug dealers, wife beaters, liquor-store robbers. Criminals. If they don’t check in when they’re supposed to, he can arrest them, because they know how to read a calendar.

No more springing for meatloaf lunches. No scolding for pigsty bedrooms. Better hours. The county hired a new officer to take the downtown caseload.

He started work Tuesday in Northeast Portland, armed with one of those rock things that pumps water all day to promote relaxation, a going-away present.

But with the frustration goes something else. Reward is relative: A new parolee shows up as scheduled, keeps a job, gives clean urine tests. Another carpets his room with cigarette butts and reads travel guides to Amsterdam for the parts about prostitutes, but he’s taking his meds and says he doesn’t think about dropping his pants at Saturday Market anymore.

Who’s doing better? Where is the greater success?

“Who knows? Maybe in a few years I’ll get back to it.”

For now, anyway, he has to act like a real parole officer.