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Former Gonzaga forward and new Portland assistant police chief Mike Leasure looks to build trust in the Rose City amid unrest

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 18, 2020

As Mike Leasure looks out the window of his downtown Portland Police Bureau office, he sees remnants of the city’s unrest.

Wooden barriers now protect the Central Precinct’s ground-level glass panels recently damaged by a protester’s ball-peen hammer, leaving dozens of fracture points.

The Rose City has experienced nightly strife since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, incited racially charged protests around the country.

Leasure – a 6-foot-7 former Gonzaga basketball player of Black and Korean descent – says he supports the Black Lives Matter movement and is against all forms of injustice.

But Leasure, a part of the Bulldogs’ program-changing NCAA Tournament run in 1999, believes much of the discord has gone too far.

“This is not about BLM or racial justice,” said Leasure, now in his 20th year with the Portland Police Bureau. “This has devolved into nightly criminal acts.

“Shootings are up, historic levels right now. Because of budget cuts and the shuttering of some of our units, we’re seeing the results of those moves.”

He was tasked in leading a charge to help quell the recent chaos that has disrupted much of Portland before a recent promotion.

Leasure, 44, was named the city’s assistant chief of police last month, a job that followed his former position as commander of the Central Precinct – a district that is the epicenter of the protests.

In this transition, Leasure pivots to leading uniformed officers. He was previously captain of the Youth Services Division.

Portland Chief Chuck Lovell believes Leasure is a man citizens can trust and have trusted.

“Mike is known as a committed, collaborative and progressive leader,” Lovell said. “He has dedicated his career to community engagement and has been involved in mentoring and coaching youth and participating in community advisory groups, including the Diversity and Inclusion Council.”

His ex-teammate – former Gonzaga star and current Hoopfest director Matt Santangelo – read all about Leasure’s ascension.

“My mom sent me a newspaper clipping about his promotion,” said Santangelo, who, grew up in the Portland area. “I’ve seen his career climb. He has taken on a bit of an activist role and creating change, which doesn’t surprise me.

“At Gonzaga, he was always a leader. He had injuries but still made an impact. Very vocal and a good example for other players.”

Always a Zag

In this March 13, 1999, file photo, Gonzaga's Mike Leasure, left, and assistant coach Mark Few celebrate after they beat Stanford 82-74 in the NCAA west regional second round game at the Key Arena in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
In this March 13, 1999, file photo, Gonzaga’s Mike Leasure, left, and assistant coach Mark Few celebrate after they beat Stanford 82-74 in the NCAA west regional second round game at the Key Arena in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Leasure, a Spanaway, Washington, product who graduated high school in 1993, jokes that he could have been a doctor by the time he exhausted his collegiate basketball eligibility.

He initially signed with Nevada, but a coaching change led to Leasure sitting out his first year before he ultimately enrolled at Gonzaga, a school that had previously shown interest.

A young assistant coach – Mark Few – was doing the Bulldogs’ recruiting.

In Leasure’s first year in Spokane – a 1994-95 season that ultimately led to the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth – Leasure broke his finger on the rim at the preseason Midnight Madness event. The compound fracture forced him to redshirt.

He went on to appear in 126 games over the next four seasons, mostly as a role player, averaging roughly four points and three rebounds per game.

He played his first two seasons for the late Dan Fitzgerald before Dan Monson took over the program, a substantial coaching style change.

“Fitzgerald was a Bobby Knight-style coach. Tough love, the kind with an approach that would get you fired today,” Leasure said. “(Monson) was a little more politically correct than Fitzgerald.”

Monson left Gonzaga for Minnesota following the Bulldogs’ Cinderella run to the Elite Eight of the 1999 NCAA Tournament, Leasure’s senior year, and Few was given the reins.

Gonzaga, now a bona fide national college basketball power, has qualified for the NCAA Tournament every year since, sending players to the NBA at a regular clip.

Leasure likes to convey how different the Gonzaga brand has changed since he played.

“I remember in my offseason in college and I’d be walking around, and someone would ask ‘Hey, you’re tall, where do you play?’ ” Leasure said. “I’d say Gonzaga, and they’d have no idea.

“Now when people ask where I played, I tell them, and they don’t believe me.”

Leasure earned a sociology and arts degree from Gonzaga, where he met his wife, Stephanie.

The Leasure family makes annual summer treks to the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area and maintain close relationships with members of the Spokane Police Department.

“I wouldn’t trade my college experience and (the Elite Eight) run for anything,” Leasure said. “Spokane as a community is still a very big piece of my life.”

Serving his city

Mike Leasure, a former Gonzaga basketball player and part of the Bulldogs’ 1999 run to the NCAA Elite Eight, was named the Portland Police Bureau’s assistant chief of the operations branch on July 15.  (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)
Mike Leasure, a former Gonzaga basketball player and part of the Bulldogs’ 1999 run to the NCAA Elite Eight, was named the Portland Police Bureau’s assistant chief of the operations branch on July 15. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)

As Leasure began to finish his criminal justice degree, he envisioned himself handling heavy cases with the Federal Bureau of Investigation or an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unit.

The son of a career Army father and a mother who owned a convenience store – his dad is Black and mother is Korean – Leasure, the first in his family to go to college, didn’t know where to start.

His mother suggested he become a police officer, a decision helped along when she asked a local Portland officer visiting her store if he had an application her son could fill out.

In 2000, a year after Leasure’s final year of college basketball, he was a street cop in the East Precinct.

Ten years later, Leasure was promoted to sergeant, and his career has since been on an upward trajectory.

According to the Portland Police Bureau, Leasure oversaw the development and implementation of the diverse officer recruitment and hiring plan, which resulted in a 30% increase in the number of diverse candidates hired.

Leasure, who was promoted to lieutenant in 2016, believes it’s important to identify with minority citizens and to build trust.

“I enjoy service to the community,” he said. “And from a law enforcement side, they can have someone looks like me.”

The inherent dangers of his job have admittedly been hard, though, especially for family members who are aware of the ongoing violence.

On Monday, the 75th consecutive day of Portland protests, one officer was hit in the face shield by a ball bearing, and several other objects were thrown at officers, according to the Oregonian.

Leasure said he has witnessed much worse aggression toward officers, a climate that has caused his two teenage daughters to worry.

“I was asked, ‘I know you can take care of yourself, Dad, but can you even get into your building?’ ” Leasure said. “That’s hard to hear from your daughter.

“And I don’t exactly look like every other Portland cop, so I can’t really live in anonymity.”

Leasure – known for critical decision making, working in complex and dynamic environments, and a demonstrated commitment to diversity and community engagement, according to Portland PD – is willing to forge ahead, though, and serve its citizens and help improve relations with officers.

He desire for community dates back to his days at The Kennel.

“When you look at the players on that 1999 team, most of our professions center around community service,” Leasure added. “It shows what kind of values we learned at Gonzaga.”

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