She’s chased down and caught three criminals in the last two weeks on foot.
She’s busted bad guys.
She’s talked to teens about drug use.
She’s known in the community for her spunk and personality.
And she’s helped inspire her sister to live a clean and sober life.
Astoria Police Officer Nicole “Nikki” Riley has done a lot in her seven years with the department.
And the fun is just beginning.
“It’s exciting,” Riley, 28, says of her job. “I tell trainees that work can be what you want it to be. A day at a police department is whatever you make it. You can choose to come in, look at the computer, work on busy stuff, paperwork and all. But you can also choose to go out and be proactive. And that’s how I have always been. I’ve never done anything half. I always want to do more than the minimum and that’s just kind of what you do.”
In the last two weeks, Riley has chased down an alleged copper wire thief, Tim Yakkola, and held him at Taser point; Edward Pender, a man with a felony warrant who climbed a tree near Astoria Middle School; and Sean Dunagan, a known drug user with a probation violation.
“This week just happened to be me being in the right place at the right time. I didn’t do anything differently than any other officer at our department does,” she said, humbly. “It’s fun, but it can get tiring too, because there’s a lot of paperwork. Pursuit paperwork, use of force paperwork is very time consuming. Very detailed. But I love what I do.”
She added, “I am a cop because I love the job. I continue to be a cop in Astoria because of my dedicated co-workers, and the support of our citizens. They make Astoria a great place to live and work.”
The road to police work
Riley, formerly Culver, is a third-generation Astorian. She graduated from Astoria High School as a soccer, basketball and track star athlete, and attended Clatsop Community College’s Criminal Justice program.
“I loved doing sports. I was pretty athletic and wasn’t really involved in anything else,” she said. “But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I went to college. And my parents told me they weren’t going to waste money if I didn’t know what I wanted to do and they weren’t going to pay me to go take P.E., so I ended up getting into a class and I thought it was kind of cool.”
While going through the program, Riley toyed with the idea of working in juvenile probation before some cops having lunch at a restaurant she worked helped to change her mind.
“The cops would come in there all the time,” she said of her first job at Tokyo Teriyaki. “They love teriyaki. So that was kind of how I got into it. Some cops said, ‘Hey, you should become a cop. You’ve got the personality for it,’ and I was already taking classes for it so I said OK.”
It was before her 21st birthday when Riley decided she wanted to be a police officer.
Meeting the lunch crowd of officers helped her get a foot in the door. But her age was problematic.
“In the state of Oregon, you have to be 21 to be a police officer. So I started volunteering with the old Police Chief Rob Deu Pree. It was a program through the college that kind of paid me to volunteer. It was work experience and work study. And we got to wear these sweet gold sweatshirts that said ‘Police Assistant’ on them,” she said with a laugh.
During her time as an assistant, Riley helped patrol the Riverwalk and distribute departmental information. She also helped perform sting operations on alcohol-serving establishments that provided to people underage, like Riley herself.
“That was fun except now that I’m 21 and I have to go to some of those places as a patron. They still bring it up. I’ve never lived that down,” she said. “We stung the bartender at The Portway and she still brings it up every time I go in there and try to order.”
In 2005, Riley turned 21 and applied for the position she had been waiting for. She started work on her 21st birthday and she’s been a “road cop” ever since. She says she would be happy to be a road cop forever. “I don’t need a title to be good at what I’m doing. You can be a leader from anywhere,” she said.
She also likes to be out in the action.
Police Chief Pete Curzon says Riley is the perfect fit.
“I have watched Nikki mature as a police officer since arriving at the department. She is what the community wants and her supervisors expect from a police officer; empathetic when necessary, aggressive when necessary but always a professional,” Curzon said. “Since she is ‘home grown,’ she knows almost everyone in the city and that’s a problem for those on the wrong side of the law.
“She has a remarkable memory for faces and names and few escape her attention. However, she also enjoys the reputation for being fair and up-front with everyone. I expect her to continue to progress in her career and move up the ranks in the department.”
“When I was hired, there were no women officers at the Astoria Police Department. At Clatsop County, there were two, I believe, not including the jail. And there was one Oregon State trooper at the time and now there are two. So I knew being a woman it was going to help me, because police departments are looking for women sometimes to have a different dynamic and view,” she said.
Her background and family life also helped her when it came to perspective.
“Working here and being from here is a pro because I know people. The unfortunate thing is that a lot of the people we’re dealing with now are people I went to school with,” she said. “So now, people know me and they’re like, ‘Oh, we went to school together!’ expecting that I should give them a break or something. And I just can’t do that.
“And knowing people here is kind of a double-edged sword because you do have to arrest people you know, you do have to issue situations to people that you know. And I just explain to them, ‘You’re the reason I am doing this. And I’m more uncomfortable than you.’ Which is true. I am more uncomfortable than they are.”
Some issues close to home
During her seven years with the department, Riley has become passionate about many things. But one of them is keeping kids off of drugs.
“Sometimes just telling people ‘I know what you’re going through, I’ve been there,’ helps them relate to me,” she said.
Riley’s older sister has been clean and sober for three years.
But the road to her sister’s recovery is part of what inspires Riley as a cop.
“What a lot of people know or maybe don’t know is that I have a sister that has battled addiction for 15 years. So I grew up in a household where she’d come in, in the middle of the night, and raise hell and we lived that terror. … She lived here while I was a police officer. I’ve had to deal with her at work.
“It was kind of scary and I can connect with people. Because people always think, ‘You’re a cop. You live a perfect life. You had a perfect life growing up.’ That’s not the way it is anymore. You look at people and you think, ‘Man, I wonder what their parents did wrong to make them use drugs?’ And sometimes, parents don’t do anything wrong. I had great parents. My parents are married, we had dinner at 5 p.m. every night, my mom cooked for my dad, she didn’t work. But somewhere my sister got lost. And that’s kind of my weakness – kids that are lost.”
Seeking to help
Riley hopes the D.A.R.E. program – Drug Abuse Resistance Education – can return to the Astoria School District one day and that she can help institute it.
“My sister will be the first one to tell you that she’s clean and sober because her family didn’t enable her, her sister didn’t baby her, never got her out of trouble. When I would hear that she was in trouble, I would stay as far away as possible because I didn’t want anyone to feel pressured into not arresting her,” Riley said. “She needed to be arrested. She was killing herself slowly and that’s what everyone is doing to themselves and there’s nothing as a parent or a family member that you can do to stop them from doing what they’re doing.
“I just spent an hour at a high schooler’s house talking to them and talking to their parents – because I can connect with people like that. This group of kids that are coming up – they don’t have the education anymore. We don’t have D.A.R.E. or any kind of buddy program here. That’s something I would like to work on in the next couple of years.”
She also hopes to one day have an Astoria Police officer on the Clatsop County Drug Task Force, something she was able to guest-work on for a few weeks, loving very minute of it.
“I really, really, really hope that one day we can get someone on that team. It was exciting, it was awesome,” she said.
Riley’s sister Amanda said having a cop for a sister is “pretty cool,” and she was not surprised when her little sister, who was a little bit of a tomboy, decided to become an officer.
“I’m really proud of her,” Amanda said Wednesday. “She’s very professional, and she’s keeping the streets safe for our people and our family. I’ve made some mistakes in my life and I’ve not always done everything right, but she’s really great to me and my boys. She’s so supportive and I’m just so proud of her.”
As for Riley’s latest string of successes, Amanda said, “She’s in good shape and she catches them all!”
“Since the shooting…”
The three foot pursuits were not the only times Riley, or other officers, have found themselves in dangerous situations or situations that could have turned ugly.
In February, Yevgeniy Pavlovich Savinskiy, 38, of Washougal, Wash., pointed a gun at Astoria Police officers at the Lamplighter Motel on Marine Drive. Officers fired at Savinskiy who then led them on a highspeed chase to U.S. Highway 26.
He is awaiting trial.
“Since the shooting, you think of stuff that you’ve never had to think of before,” Riley said. “For the time before that, as a cop I was kind of like, ‘Man, no one can stop me. I can chase after anybody and no one’s going to be hiding with a gun.’ Since that happened, it’s put a whole new spin on things. On my way to work, I think about what’s going to happen. Or am I going to have to take someone’s life today? Before, I never thought that. Now, every day, I check my gun to see if there’s a bullet in the chamber just to be sure. If those officers involved in (the shooting at the Lamplighter) didn’t have one, they could have been dead.
“So you think of that stuff and I thought about it when I was chasing after Tim Yakkola. I didn’t know if he had a knife. He was running from an unknown situation where he was probably using some type of bolt cutters to cut the wire. Where are those? You have to keep that kind of stuff in mind when you go to calls now and look for exit strategies.
“You have to think to yourself, ‘If something bad happens, where can I go?’ And that’s what saved those two officers’ lives in that shooting.”
Riley and her husband Matt, a Warrenton Police officer, will celebrate their five-year wedding anniversary later this month.
“He wasn’t a police officer when we met. I was a police officer first. I like to tell people that,” she said with a grin. “People always make assumptions that I came to work and met some dreamy cop and fell in love – not what happened.”
The couple met outside of work. Matt Riley was a reserve with the WPD before the two were wed.
Her parents still live in Astoria, as well as her grandmother, brother, sister, and two nephews. She also has a niece on her husband’s side and a sister-in-law who doubles as her patrol partner, Riley joked.
“She loves going on ride-alongs,” Riley said. “She’s my partner. She got pregnant again this year which really upset me because she’s been out of the beat for nine months and she’s got an eye just like me. She’s my good luck charm.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.