Winthrop Marshal Chris Matson is still hanging on to “the best job in the world.” Photo by Marcy Stamper

Winthrop Marshal Chris Matson is still hanging on to “the best job in the world.” Photo by Marcy Stamper

Carving time for self and community

Interview by Marcy Stamper

March 2009

 Chris Matson, the Winthrop marshal for the past eight years, calls the job “perfect” – the best job in the world. Still, he is planning his retirement, to move closer to his family and travel (he’d like to see the biggest ball of yarn in the world and the largest frying pan).

 

Tell me about the life of the Winthrop marshal.

There is so much media – not just news media, but television programs, movies, games, the whole thing – that have such a high influence on our kids anymore, that they want to identify with what’s going on. Their role models may be perfectly good human beings and an upright citizen in their community, but role-playing a bad person. The kids don’t get that role-play. An example is the movie Fast and Furious. It’s a movie about driving really fast and doing really dumb things on the road. When the movie first came out, I don’t know how many times we caught kids in these little rice burners running around town trying to emulate that. Our job is to make sure these kids get through their adolescence and get to college or wherever they’re going and be good citizens. And it’s a difficult job because of all the outside influence.

 

Do you find your main focus is on kids – is that the biggest trouble you have here?

Well, no. We don’t have trouble with the kids. We just have kids trying to get by without shoving. They’re just trying to get through their high school years and get on with their life, but in doing so, kids will be kids, and we have to deal with that to make sure that the kids are safe and that the other citizens in our communities are safe.

 

In a small community like this, everybody knows everybody else. Does that make a difference?

It’s like being the recess referee at a school. You know everybody, you know everybody’s personality, everybody’s problems. And they know that about the cops, too. They know where you live, where you eat, what you eat. You don’t necessarily see what they’re doing – you can also see why they’re doing it. You know the history of it – there was something done in high school, or somebody’s under incredible stress at home – and that helps, as far as getting the issues dealt with.

It’s easy for us to address the deeper needs. I told every one of my officers when I hired them that working in a small town is a complete different animal than working in a big city. In a big city, you have a buffer between you and the citizens. You arrest somebody, you may not see them again. In a small town, you write someone a ticket, and maybe they’re going to cook your breakfast in the morning or put gas in your car – you’re going to have something to do with them in the next couple of days.

 

Do you have staff that can help people deal with these problems?

Back in the day, there was no real emphasis on an obligation to community other than enforcement. My office and my officers look at town as our community, we’re part of it. I have people come to the house all the time that have questions, and I don’t have a problem with that – it’s a neighborly thing to do.

 

The Methow is not as cut off from the rest of the world as it once was – what sort of impact does that have? I can imagine some young people feel bored and frustrated.

They do – but young people in a big city suffer that, too. The kids here generally find something to do, and for the most part it’s constructive. We have very little problem with criminal mischief. We just don’t have the juvenile delinquency here that you’ll see in other places. I firmly believe that parents and the community here are more kid-oriented than anyplace else.

 

What would you say the most serious problems are here?

I think the serious problems we deal with are the whole drug issue. There’s methamphetamines that are flavored with strawberry and cocoa. That to me is unconscionable – developing drugs so that they’re more attractive to the younger generation. Kids don’t know; they’ll take something before they think about it. When I was young, back in the ’60s, marijuana was a big deal. Today, the stuff we’re picking up on the street is 10 times more potent. Then there are the kinds of things people are finding at parties – a bowl of pills – “Help yourself.”

 

Where are kids getting all these pills? 

Grandma’s closet. They’re stealing from the medicine cabinet at home. Oxycontin, that’s a big one. Meth is the kind of drug that, depending on their physical make-up – it gives them quite a high, but it’s extremely addictive. The stuff that they make it out of is toxic – anhydrous ammonia (liquid fertilizer), acetone, alkaline batteries. If we find a meth lab in a house, we have the health department shut the house down. This stuff permeates the carpet and the woodwork, and then you have kids running around. That’s how dangerous this stuff is.

 

Have you had problems with meth labs here?

We’ve had them. Most of it is coming from Wenatchee, Spokane.

 

Do you think it would help if drugs were legal, to take the lucrative part out of it?

There are all kinds of answers to that problem. Right now law enforcement is like the little boy with his finger in the dike. We catch about 20 percent at our borders. There are several things that should be done to eliminate the problem, and eliminate the demand. How do you do that – whether you legalize and tax or make the punishment higher – whatever needs to be done needs to be done before – and we’re stemming on too late now – before it becomes an epidemic. If you were to poll the school students, each year you’re going to a lower grade on who’s starting drinking alcohol or smoking dope – you’re down in the grade school now. Kids don’t have the life experiences to know when to say no. It’s human nature to be curious about things.

 

Where were you before coming here?

I started in 1972 with the State Patrol in Colorado, and then I worked with a small police department in Colorado, then Wyoming; then I was with a nuclear sub base. Then my family and I had our woodcarving business for about eight years. It was a very good business, but I was in a car wreck in 2000 and broke my neck, so I couldn’t heft the chainsaws like I used to, so I had to go back to something a little less dangerous. So I went back to police work.

 

You still carve and whittle, don’t you?

I still carve, I just can’t carve like I used to. I used to be able to carve 40, 50 carvings a week. I had seven people carving for me. My wife and my daughters did the refining – they’re my artists. I just cut them out. Now we do Christmas ornaments – that’s all we have at our shop down here. I would carve the item – it was like this cowboy that’s out front out here, or Doug Mohre’s cowboy [at Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe] – I carved both of those. My wife sands them and paints them so they’re antique and the highlights show.

 

Are you still thinking of retiring?

Yes. I was going to retire last September – I’ve got all the time in – but the economy went topsy on us and, like everybody, we waited to see what was going to happen. I don’t have a date. They’ve had an open call for applicants.

 

What do you plan for your retirement?

We’re going to move to Idaho. That’s where my daughter and her family live. My other daughter and two sons live in Colorado, so that’s where the rest of my grandkids are. I’m going to take my grandsons fishing and build birdhouses.

 

Are there any things you’re hoping to do here before you retire?

Well, the big thing for me is getting the police department out of the basement. I still feel this is not a good thing for the employees. We need a place where we can have private interviews or private interrogations. We have a secure evidence vault, but it’s small. The stairs have always been an issue; it’s an officer safety issue and a public safety issue, because if we get somebody who’s combative, we can’t bring them down – we take them right to jail. The town deserves to have a more accessible place to talk to the cops.

 

You’ll still do your wood carving after retirement?

Yeah, that’s therapy for us – it’s calming. When you’re playing with a block of wood and a very sharp knife, you kind of pay attention to what you’re doing, so you get your mind off of things.

I always tell people, you find what you enjoy doing and, at least once a day, or once every other day, sit and do it – that’s me-time. I’ll put a towel on my lap and sit and watch a program on T.V. and I’ll carve one or two little carvings. It’s just like somebody takes the weight of the world off my shoulders.