The Portland police have an ugly reputation of misuse of force, which they have done little to eradicate. In late 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) mandated changes in Portland Police Bureau (PPB) policy to ameliorate officer misconduct, changes which the city has been struggling to address ever since. If an agreement on changes isn’t made, tension in the city will only rise, and citizens will have to continue to wait to see change in the PPB.
Earlier this year, Jason Cox sued the city of Portland for $545,000 for assault, battery, and negligence connected to his arrest on June 18, 2011. He was arrested under suspicion of reckless driving, and according to the police report, was argumentative and resistant when the police attempted to administer a field sobriety test and take him into custody.
According to the report, the officers were forced to “take him to the ground” and they “pushed his head into the ground.” Thinking that Cox was reaching for a weapon, one officer decided that “delivering controlled blows … was the best option considering the entire situation,” while another officer Tased Cox four times. However, a recovered surveillance video, although slightly difficult to interpret, suggests otherwise: it seems to show Cox being thrown to the ground, punched, and Tased without appearing to resist or reach for a weapon.
When Sgt. Pete Simpson, the spokesperson for the PPB, commented to KOIN News about the case, he remarked, “Based on that investigation, we found that the officers followed proper procedures, and we closed that internal affairs inquiry.”
In 2012, there were over 400 complaints from the community regarding officer misconduct, 77% of which were immediately dismissed, according to City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade’s annual police review. A total of 361 PPB employees received misconduct complaints (some received more than one), yet not a single officer was fired. The majority of the complaints that underwent investigation were forwarded directly to the specific officer’s supervisor as minor rule violations, and were treated with a letter of reprimand and/or command counseling.
When the report from the U.S. DOJ first came out in 2012, calling the PPB’s policies “byzantine,” Chief of Police Mike Reese admitted that the “bureau and this community can improve the way we serve.”
The U.S. DOJ found that the PPB engages in “a pattern or practice of unnecessary or unreasonable force during interactions with people who have or are perceived to have mental illness,” according to the city auditor’s report. The city negotiated an agreement of new procedures and policies to implement in the PPB such as new training requirements, a new unit to oversee how police interact with mentally ill people, and improved officer accountability.
New procedures were recommended for investigations involving misconduct complaints as well: investigators are required to conduct a more in-depth analysis before a decision is made, and stronger evidence must be presented before dismissing a case. In addition, the agreement requires that all investigations be completed in 180 days, a much-shortened timeline than the one in practice.
Less than a month after the agreement was settled, the Portland Police Association filed a motion in federal court to block approval of the agreement, effectively delaying its implementation.
The problems that motivated the investigation revisions are exemplified by former Assistant Chief of Police Eric Hendricks’ retirement. Hendricks retired this summer while under investigation by the city’s Bureau of Human Resources. He was accused of ordering the internal affairs captain in late May to shut down the inquiry of Capt. Mark Kruger, who faced allegations that he had harassed a female lieutenant, according to the Oregonian.
On May 31, in a memo to the city auditor, Chief Reese stated that, “No one in the police bureau was attempting to circumvent the investigative or discipline processes.”
The auditor, in an Oct. 28 memo to the mayor, referenced this quote from Reese and said that, “given the evidence, we do not believe that to be the case.” Constantin Severe, the director of the Portland Independent Police Review Division (IPR), the group that handles misconduct complaints, also commented on the case in a Sept. 2 memo to the mayor’s chief of staff, Gail Shibley: “Assistant Chief Hendricks’ version of events are so fanciful that it has caused me to question his credibility as a witness.”
Evidently, the investigation processes are easily hindered and confused in the bureau, and many of the interferences likely go unnoticed. Although Hendricks might have been planning on retirement, the timing does raise some questions and suggest the validity of the questions about his conduct.
Today, the city still waits to see changes in the PPB’s policies regarding misconduct, although it has been over a year since the U.S. DOJ and the city negotiated the agreement. On Oct. 23 the City Council met to discuss the issue.
Before the meeting, Severe told OPB that he has “concern for the city’s record of arbitrations.” Arbitration is when a decision made by the IPR and the PPB is reviewed by an impartial third party who can overturn the decision. In March 2012, for example, an arbitrator directed the city to re-hire Officer Ronald Frashour, who had been fired by the PPB and the city following a review of his fatal shooting of Aaron Campbell in January 2010.
Jason Cox’s attorney for his case, Jason Kafoury, proposed a bill in the state senate this spring that would have prohibited binding arbitration to resolve such employment disputes. The bill, Senate Bill 747, never passed.
Severe, a supporter of the proposed changes to policy regarding officer misconduct, thinks that the changes would help prevent chances of decisions being overturned by arbitration. He wants to break the internal affairs liaison between the IPR and officers, which he said would increase officer accountability. He also backs the addition of Citizen Review Committee (CRC, an advisory group appointed by the City Council) members to the Police Review Board, which deals with use-of-force complaints. He said Portland needs a “consistent way for treating like individuals, similarly in similar cases,” such as a discipline guideline or rubric, for the PPB to follow. He points out that other cities similar in size to Portland, like Albuquerque and Phoenix, successfully use discipline matrices. Severe also advocates for the requirement of the chief to write a report if his final discipline decision differs from the one recommended by the board.
Chief Reese opposes change to policy. He told the Oregonian, “the bureau is not aware of any problems with the current system,’” and that “the current system is working very well,” despite his previous remark about improving the way the PPB serves the community. He claims that under the current circumstances the IPR has direct access to officers in question and is not hindered by internal affairs. He agrees that creating a discipline matrix and adding CRC members to the board would be beneficial, but opposes the requirement of a written report when his discipline decisions differ from the board’s.
This friction between the IPR and the PPB exemplifies the conflict that permeates the struggle for agreement today. As the auditor explained, “These incidents help illustrate the need for IPR to conduct what the [U.S.] DOJ agreement terms ‘meaningful independent investigations,’ particularly when the subject is a high ranking police official … These cases also exemplify why IPR should have the authority to compel the testimony of PPB members independent of Police Bureau involvement.”
It seems indisputable that without at least some changes, officer misconduct and the investigations of it will not improve. An important issue such as this, which involves the safety of our city’s citizens, needs to be addressed sooner rather than later, because additional postponement will only raise the tension between the IPR and the PPB. If the two bodies continue to disagree, then the issue will only be further postponed and the city will be stuck in a cycle that will prevent changes from being made. Although the final negotiation may take some time, the PPB must become more open to change and accept its wrongdoings in order to move forward, rather than claiming that the current system works well.
After the Oct. 23 City Council meeting, Mayor Charlie Hales decided to postpone the issue until Dec. 4. The reason he gave to the Oregonian was that it “needs work.” His statement holds truth, but hopefully the city can come to an agreement before the new year.