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Store-owning, piano-playing cop Paul Eng looks back on 25-year sheriff's career in North Bend
North Bend’s longest-serving deputy had to make a tough call a few months back, when an old shoulder injury flared up and put him on sick leave. Did he nurse his shoulder back to health and come back for another two years of service in the community he loved and had served for nearly 25 years? Or did he sail off into the sunset of (early) retirement?
He chose the sunset, and for a lot of good reasons: He’s planning to follow his own advice of “don’t get old!”
Eng’s wife retired two years ago and he’s jealous that she gets to sleep in every morning; and he’s thinking about the future, both for himself, and the King County Sheriff’s Office.
“A lot of people are coming on right now, and they really need a place like North Bend to excel,” he said during a phone interview last week.
North Bend, he says, is the kind of place where officers can still do “the community policing thing.” It’s small enough that an officer can walk the beat and meet business owners and residents personally, and “everybody knows everybody, and what’s going on,” he said. “I like that, that’s what police work is all about.”
Eng, now 63, found North Bend in 1984, when he was a patrol deputy stationed in the sheriff’s department’s Kenmore-Woodinville-Bothell precinct. This was his second career in the U.S. — his first was in the hotel industry, where he started after coming to America in 1965. Eng was born in China and raised in Hong Kong.
He decided to transfer to a position in the city in 1988, and has been here ever since.
“I like it so much because it’s got the view of Mount Si, it’s got the elk, the horses, I just loved it out there,” he said.
When he came to North Bend, in what he calls “the olden days,” Fritz Ribary was Mayor, and Eng used to set up and watch for speeders at what was then the Tift Haus (now the Pour House).
“My pet peeves were actually speeding and stop sign violations,” he said. “I figure if the speed’s down, everybody will be safe.”
He spent a lot of time doing traffic enforcement, he said, because North Bend didn’t have a traffic officer, and “in those days, we were writing tickets by the book.”
In those days, they were also in downtown North Bend, in a police station, complete with jail, right next to City Hall. Eng, along with his partner Deputy Simon, also briefly had a business in downtown North Bend, which turned out to be a good place to learn even more about the community. The store sold liquidated merchandise, Eng said, and many community members would tell them about local happenings that might interest law enforcement.
“It was like a second community office there,” he said.
That community connection, and face-to-face interactions, have always been essential to Eng, even as technology has changed a lot about police work. Nowadays he doesn’t go through books of tickets, because he prints them out on the spot, he says, and computers have improved some aspects of the job, but they can’t take the place of talking to people.
“I believe in order for you to gain information, you have to get it from the community businesses and residents,” Eng said. “I think that will always be the rule of how to do community police work, regardless of the size of the town.”
When he and his partner arrested a man last year who was threatening to blow up a local bank, he says, they “just happened to be in the area, showed up right away, arrested him. He ended up going to court, and the guy was convicted.”
Last August, when two teens committed a string of vandalisms and thefts in one night in downtown North Bend, Eng said he and his partner just happened to contact two boys eating lunch at the baseball field the next day. While they were talking, Eng noticed one boy’s backpack bulging with something like 50 nail polish bottles, and they knew they had their culprits.
“That’s what cracked the case… later on he confessed,” Eng said. “If we were not at the top of our game, we would have missed it.”
Eng has a few cases he’s particularly proud of, involving fraud and drugs, and a few that are just memorable.
“All of the crimes in North Bend are all interesting, all funny,” he said. There was the woman they arrested for hitting her husband with a pair of boots, and the occasional naked man report.
One year, he said “about March or so, we had a naked guy running around Riverbend. He’d taken a bunch of drugs or something, and we chased him around, back and forth. Finally we tackled him and put some clothes on him,” he said. “Man, I could write a book!”
The book is not in his immediate future plans, but Eng thinks he will do some golfing, some fishing, and maybe take a cruise after retirement. He knows he will miss the work and his colleagues, especially his Chief of Police Mark Toner.
“That guy knows search warrants, he knows everything. I learned a lot from him,” Eng said. “When he has something, it’s not one of those Chinese chef mentalities — the chef won’t teach you how to saute, won’t teach you how to marinate meats — this guy here, he’ll teach you everything he knows.”
One of Toner’s first acts when joining the force in 2009 was to help Eng with one technology struggle.
“He helped me fabricate a radar holder for my car, so I could write more tickets for him,” Eng said.
That was typical of Toner, Eng said. “He helped us with anything and everything, in any old way… He never yells. He’s always good-tempered, and he’ll give his shirt for you.”
Toner says of Eng, “He has been the epitome of community policing in North Bend. He will be a tough one to replace, but I wish him well in his retirement plans.”
Since he’s been on sick leave, Eng hasn’t been making his usual rounds of the businesses and the Mount Si Senior Center, and his absence has been noticed.
“Where is he?” asks senior center director BJ Libby. “I’ve missed him!”
Libby said Eng stopped in every week, just to say hi, to talk with the guests, and to check on any issues the center might be having. He’s even given Libby suggestions for her office, she said.
“He’d notice that we’ve done all the improvements outside, and he’ll come in and say ‘Wow, you guys are really going after this’” she said. He always makes a point of talking to one guest in particular first, every time, she added. “Just a sweet, sweet man.”
Eng says his visits there are the kind of police work that he likes, personal communication and immediately addressing the problem. He thinks residents like it, too, but there may be another reason he’s so popular at the senior center.
“Sometimes I go in there, and they know that I play piano, and they wanted me to play some piano for them,” he says, laughing. “I felt so guilty — a police officer in uniform, playing the piano, trying to entertain people!”
Eng is also popular in the schools, where he often reads to students or does show-and-tell, or, sometimes like last year, he’s asked to lock up the principal in a mock jail for the school’s walkathon.
They’re all things that he’ll miss, he says.
“I feel like the North Bend community… is part of my family, and I certainly will miss both the city and the people in it,” he said.
Retirement may not mean good-bye, though, since Eng hopes to move to the city some day in the future.
In the meantime, he has a few last words of wisdom.
“I will miss you all. Be safe.”