New Sheriff Nick Hunter wants to get to the root of Marion County’s pressing issues

Putting on the badge for the first time in 2001 as a volunteer sheriff’s deputy, Nick Hunter wasn’t planning on one day being Marion County’s top cop. 

“That’s like walking into a private business and saying, ‘I’m the next CEO,’” he told Salem Reporter. “Until you have the ability to understand the inner workings of an office and understand the inner workings of what a position requires of you, I think it’s a step ladder.”

Hunter, 46, said continually seeking to improve and take on new leadership positions prepared him for the opportunity when it came. As a lieutenant, he looked back on the breadth of his law enforcement career, supervising three divisions at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and leading a SWAT team over two-plus decades.

The Marion County Board of Commissioners on June 7 appointed Hunter Marion County Sheriff, completing the term of retiring Sheriff Joe Kast.

He was sworn in on June 30 and will hold the job until voters decide the county’s top law enforcement officer in the next general election on Nov. 5, 2024.

Hunter grew up in Lake Oswego and moved to Salem in 1995 to attend Willamette University. He said he fell in love with the Willamette Valley as the place he wanted to spend his life and raise a family.

The child of a doctor and a nurse, he started college intending to head to medical school but said he began to question what he truly wanted to do. 

While playing baseball for Willamette University, Hunter was working at Gold’s Gym in Salem when he met a gym member who was a police officer. It was after joining the officer on ride-alongs that he decided to change his focus of study to psychology and begin pursuing a law enforcement career.

“I have an interest in why people do the things they do,” Hunter said. His career decision came down to teaching or policing. “The law enforcement aspect, I believe, gave me the opportunity, once I was in it, to be able to both teach and to be able to serve the community.”

A resident of the greater Salem area for 28 years, Hunter started volunteering as a reserve deputy in 2001 at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and later joined the Independence Police Department, where he worked four years.

Hunter returned to the sheriff’s office in 2008. “Marion County has always been a family to me, and I’ve always wanted to be part of that family,” he said.

He was promoted to sergeant in 2012 and oversaw a patrol team for three years before being promoted to lieutenant in 2015, according to his application.

Hunter has since supervised the operations division – which oversees administrative matters including courthouse security, concealed handgun licenses, recruitment and records – and the enforcement division – which handles calls for service, search and rescue, SWAT, K-9, criminal investigations, traffic safety and contracts with local cities.

He also began serving as a SWAT commander in 2016.

As sheriff, Hunter will oversee an agency serving nearly 350,000 people, including 37 unincorporated communities in Marion County. The sheriff’s office also oversees the county’s parole and probation division, its 470-bed jail and 144-bed transition center. The office has an annual budget of about $88 million.

Commissioners selected Hunter to take over as sheriff after interviewing six candidates.

“I was proud to sit next to those others that were in the process, and it is very humbling to hear your name,” he said. “ You kind of want to pinch yourself real quick and look around and make sure that this is really happening around you.”

Hunter said the broad extent of his work has shaped his approach of problem-solving from a “30,000-foot-view,” whether it’s responding to a call for service or investigating drug trafficking.  

As a deputy, he learned the importance of “meeting the community where they are and working with them to solve a problem as opposed to, ‘I’m here to give you an answer.’ This is not an answer profession. This is, how do we work together collaboratively to solve things?” he said “What do the trends look like? Where is this occurring? How many times is this occurring? And how do we find a way to … intercede into the root causes?” Hunter said.

Being responsive to such trends, he said, is necessary for reducing issues such as crime and homelessness in the community.

“Simply taking the homeless population and moving them from one place to another doesn’t solve the problem. We’ve got to look at the root cause,” he said.

If needed, he said the sheriff’s office can consider expanding services such as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, created in 2018 to help keep people who are homeless, have addictions or serious health problems from cycling in and out of jail or the emergency room, without their underlying problems being addressed.

He said such connections are significant for those who commit low-level crimes to survive and find a “means to an end.”

“Sometimes that arrest is seen as a negative function, and there are absolutely a time and a place for arrests,” he said. “But there is also a time to focus on those that simply are making life choices because this is where they are and this is the direction they’re going. How do we need to help those folks to find better direction and find better resources to ultimately give them the best chance for success?”

Hunter said a vital long-term approach to curbing drug trafficking in Marion County is mentoring youth who resort to “crimes of opportunity.” He said schools and programs like the Boys and Girls Club can help establish why people turn to such issues and find ways to intervene.

“A lot of those are taking youth that don’t look at having any other opportunities or choices,” he said. “We can place ourselves in the development of youth and truly help them to find what are going to be prosocial, positive behaviors as opposed to that illegal drug trade.”

Hunter said communication is key in policing, and it works two ways.

“I will continue to be a transparent person,” he said. “Where there are issues that exist, concerns that exist, problems that exist, we need that information. And then it’s incumbent upon us to communicate back with the community and ensure that those levels and those lines of communication constantly open.”

Hunter lives in Sublimity with his wife and two children.

While his career path has left him short on hobbies, he said outdoors – if he can get there – is always better than indoors. 

“I very much enjoy spending time with my wife, and it doesn’t matter what we do to just step away for a moment,” he said.

Both kids also share his affinity for baseball. “If I can get to a baseball game on an afternoon or a weekend, that’s a happy place for me,” he said. “Just to be part of the community and watch those kids and watch those kids develop is fun.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

SUPPORT OUR WORK – We depend on subscribers for resources to report on Salem with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.