Clark County sheriff’s Sgt. Fred Neiman learned about customer service as a 17-year-old working at a Kalama Chevron station.
The station’s owner expected his employees to wash the windshield, check the oil and add air to the tires, even if the customer didn’t buy any gas.
Neiman strived to carry that same perspective through a 40-year career with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
His first eight years were as a reserve deputy, followed by 32 years as a full-time deputy/sergeant on different assignments: rural patrol deputy, search and rescue coordinator, marine deputy, public information officer and sheriff recruiter.
“Law enforcement is, or really should be, about customer service,” he said.
Neiman, 62, will log his final day today before going out of service to retirement, proud of the work he has done and leaving what he called “The Job” with few, if any, regrets.
He started at a time when deputies carried revolvers and wrote reports by hand. He leaves during an era when previously accepted norms about mental illness, drug use and mass incarceration are being challenged and debated.
Neiman pleaded that such a discussion is above his paygrade — “I’m just a street cop,” he protested mildly — before acknowledging that law enforcement is an ever-evolving field grounded in shifting societal standards.
“We have to be able to adopt to what we are given from the legislative and judicial branches,” he said.
During his eight years as a reserve deputy, Neiman was director of security at Clark College, where he also had attended school.
In 1988, the sheriff’s office received additional funding and announced its intent to hire 30 more deputies. Neiman jumped at the chance to move into the department full time, even though he had to take a pay cut to do so.
“Working as an active law enforcement officer satisfied something inside me,” he said.
For 32 years, he retained an affable demeanor that helped de-escalate conflicts. Neiman is thankful he never had to fire his gun at a person.
Neiman was checking fishing licenses along the North Fork of the Lewis River in the early 1990s when one standard inquiry revealed an outstanding arrest warrant. He told the man, who was fishing with his brother and had been “drinking a little,” that he was taking him to jail. The man, in no uncertain terms, replied he wasn’t going.
Neiman didn’t know if one or both were armed and didn’t want to force a confrontation. Instead, he engaged them with words, asking if they had jobs, talking about posting bail for what was a relatively minor offense, and warning of the consequences for assaulting a sheriff’s deputy.
“You can be back fishing tomorrow,” Neiman remembers telling the two men. “What you are talking about here is going to create bigger problems for you down the road.”
The low-key approach caused both men to pause and think. Eventually, Neiman took the one man to jail as his brother followed. Neiman even agreed to stop in Woodland so he could buy gas on his way to downtown Vancouver.
“I knew it could have escalated the other way,” he said. “When you worked north county, you had to learn to use your mouth.”
Some new deputies might come to the department ready to take on the world. Gradually, they come to appreciate the complexity of situations and the need, at times, to be a problem solver more than a rigid enforcer.
“I think there is a natural progression for most law enforcement officers,” Neiman said.
Neiman, during his six years as the sheriff’s public information officer this past decade, gave the communications effort a needed modernization, including launching social media accounts and requesting a smartphone so he could communicate and disseminate information faster and more effectively.
Neiman remembers early during his communications work when a Hazel Dell bank was robbed. Its managers were able to provide clear images of the robber from surveillance cameras. Neiman sent those out via the sheriff’s office’s Twitter account, which is followed by the local media.
“It was just hours later that detectives had the guy’s name,” he said. “That really beat putting wanted posters up all around town.”
He admits to having significant apprehension when he was given the public information assignment, but he quickly learned to tell reporters what he could without compromising an open investigation.
“You know what? They aren’t out to get us,” he said. “The camera folks, they are not trying to make you look dumb.’
Neiman kept his sense of humor while working with the media. After the Clark County Jail had accidentally released the wrong person, a reporter asked him if this was the department’s most embarrassing moment.
“Oh no, it’s not even close,” he quipped.
Like any other officer, Neiman has seen his share of despair and ugliness.
Neiman and another deputy searched for fingers that had been severed during a traffic crash, putting what they found in a plastic bag with some ice and rushing them to the hospital.
Neiman and other deputies were out at Silver Star Mountain with a killer who was telling authorities where there might be a body buried. While pointing to a unfurled map, the man’s hand briefly brushed across Neiman’s hand, sending a cold shiver through his body.
“This guy was evil,” he said.
Neiman worked as a shift photographer and took photos at crime scenes and other calls. When he was taking photos of a young girl who died from natural causes, he briefly thought he saw his own daughter, who was about the same age, through the camera lens lying in the bed.
“There are cases that haunt you,” he said. “You can’t unsee what you have seen.”
Those experiences are small compared with the rest of his career.
“The great people we get to meet, they far outweigh all these bad experiences,” he said.
As Neiman prepares for a new life on his rural property in Cowlitz County with horses, cows and vintage John Deere tractors that need restoring, he knows he will miss the professional bond forged between those who depend on each other.
That was highlighted in Neiman’s written farewell, titled “The Job,” that he distributed via email and posted on the sheriff’s office’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/ClarkCountySheriffsOffice.
“Your squad thrives on caffeine, adrenaline and camaraderie — a very special camaraderie forged only in the throes of strife and conflict,” he wrote. “For it’s in the midst of those most chaotic episodes, when there can be no room for doubt and you know your patrol partners are depending on you every bit as much as you are relying on them, that all your senses awaken and you have never felt more vitally alive.”
One of his three children, Fred Neiman Jr., followed in his footsteps and works as a detective with the sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit, something the elder Neiman referenced in his written adieu.
He recounted a conversation he had with a fellow deputy years ago who had been one of the department’s first K-9 handlers. Although the dog was long retired and content to spend his days in idle slumber at the family’s home, he still got excited when he saw his former handler putting on his uniform and heading to work.
Neiman ended his farewell tribute by opining that he might not be that different from “that old dog” who still yearned to hop in a patrol vehicle, track suspects and do whatever else was asked of him.
“I know the day is coming when I will watch my son ride out to battle dragons and perform good deeds in the land,” Neiman wrote. “And like that old dog, I will stand at the window and watch until his patrol car drives out of sight and I’ll be wishing I was going with him, but I won’t because he has the job now.”