Sitting in class at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, Sara Westbrook discovered her life’s purpose. At the time, she was pursuing a liberal arts degree. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the murderer lurking in her own neighborhood.
The notorious serial killer known as the Green River Killer was murdering women all along the I-5 corridor at the time, with the remains of his victims being found in the Green River, forests and even in Portland. Women in the Pacific Northwest felt terrified to leave their homes, fearing they would be the next victim.
“And one day one of my professors said something about being called in — he was an archaeologist — to look at a bone to see if it was a human bone,” Westbrook said. “And it just clicked in my head like, ‘That's it, I'm going to become a police officer, and I'm going to catch that guy.’”
Now, with over 33 years of experience in police work, Westbrook has come out of retirement to continue her vocation and passion of serving others by taking on the role of director of Public Safety. She hopes to continue to build the program, stay up to date on training related to responding to gun violence and increase trust between students and Public Safety.
“She's got such a great spirit,” Vice President for Student Affairs Rev. John Donato, C.S.C said. “She loves working with students and contributing so she's very happy to be here and she wowed everybody — we had some students and staff interviewing her as well. She had already retired and wanted to come back and do something meaningful. It was just a great fit for us.”
Westbrook was only retired for seven months when she decided to apply for the position. Having started her career in law enforcement at 23, she has dedicated her life to her work and found a love for serving whatever community she is a part of.
“Being a police officer, no matter what your rank is, is an amazing job because you meet people at all intersections of their lives,” Westbrook said. “And it was a heavy responsibility. But there was also a sacredness about knowing you were present in somebody's life during a huge event. I just wanted to be a person who was calm, centered and kind in those interactions to be as helpful as I could be.”
Westbrook spent most of her career in Portland, serving 25 years with the Portland Police Bureau. She started as a deputy in Olympia but moved to Portland because she wanted to be in a city with more action that allowed her to go up in the ranks and work in different departments.
She has worked as a domestic violence detective and has supervised child abuse detectives. She has been in charge of the K9 unit, rapid response team and the patrol unit. She has held the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant, captain and served as commander in Portland’s Central Precinct, East Precinct and the Transit Police Division.
In every position she has held, she has been invested in social justice issues.
“The thing that I focused on in my career was learning about mental illness — learning the best ways for the police to be trained and respond to people in crisis,” she said. “And then that kind of morphed into working with people experiencing homelessness, because they so often intersect, so I was instrumental in the police bureau’s training throughout most of my career on how to respond to the mentally ill.”
Westbrook said her upbringing and family played an influential role in shaping her love for service. Her four siblings and her are very close with each other and their parents.
She said her parents raised her as a social justice Catholic, teaching her the fundamentals of Catholicism and placing emphasis on serving others to leave the world a better place than how she found it.
“It was just so embedded in our how we lived and breathed,” she said. “It's not until you look back and you meet other people as an adult, and you hear about their family experiences and realize, ‘wow, I had it so good.’ We didn't have a ton of money...We just really loved each other, and we were just taught to love others.”
As an openly gay woman, Westbrooks family’s values of love and compassion helped her to be proud of who she is. She found her parents and the Portland Police Bureau to be welcoming and accepting. She said she was always “just Sara” to her peers.
These values she grew up with brought her out of retirement because she believes they match UP’s. While she said her beliefs aligned with her police work, UP’s Catholic foundation created a deeper connection to her personal faith.
“This being a church institution just makes it so that...I'm free to speak and think in church language,” she said.
Though she hasn’t been on campus for long, Westbrook has enjoyed her time in Public Safety and said that Gerry Greg, who retired as director of Public Safety at the end of last year, built a great program.
Westbrook said she doesn’t have any specific goals yet and is still learning about UP and her role on campus. Although she said there is a natural tension between students and Public Safety, she hopes to create a trusting relationship with students similar to that of a child and parent where students can feel comfortable asking for help even if they are doing something against the rules. She is eager to meet more of the UP community when the school year begins to start building that trust.
“It will be fun to be around that hopeful, vibrant energy — life bubbling all around you, and the excitement of what's ahead for all the young people,” she said.
In her free time, Westbrook enjoys training her three dogs on the ten acres of property she has with her partner. She also has a cat, plays guitar, and enjoys reading, cooking and spending time with her friends.
“I look forward to having more time to not do less work, but to be able to get out of the office and meet, walk around and say hello and really build relationships,” Westbrook said.
Maddie Pfeifer is the news and managing editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.