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April 14th, 2010 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Above The Law

Just how out-of-control are off-duty Portland cops? We ask the experts.

     
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IMAGE: Jonathan Hill

When state police pulled Ryan Porath over last year outside Keizer for weaving across lanes on I-5 in his 2003 Ford Focus, the first thing he did was show the trooper his Portland police ID.

Trooper Joe Skipper noted Officer Porath had glassy eyes, reeked of booze and was badly slurring his speech. But apparently Porath thought his status as an off-duty Portland cop would earn him a break in his April 2, 2009, traffic stop.

“[He] handed me a Portland Police Bureau ID card and told me that he might as well give that to me,” Skipper wrote in his report. “I told him that I was not concerned about that.”

After failing roadside sobriety tests, Porath tried again to appeal to Skipper’s esprit de corps. “I’m one of you guys,” Porath pleaded, according to Skipper’s report. “We are on the same team.”

Porath blew 0.19 percent on a breathalyzer, more than twice the legal blood-alcohol limit. His arrest at 2:30 am on his way home to Wilsonville from Salem led to a DUII guilty plea. He completed a diversion program last month.

Porath’s arrest, which has never before been publicized, provides another piece in what outside experts say appears to be a pattern of recent run-ins in which Portland cops behaved like they were above the law—even when they were off duty. This month, Portlanders have witnessed an unfolding scandal involving three road-rage incidents where Portland police threatened motorists—including two by the head of the police union.

Andrew Scott, a former police chief in Boca Raton, Fla., says those incidents and others described in this story should raise a red flag that something is wrong in the Portland Police Bureau.

“That kind of double standard is unacceptable and undermines the credibility of the agency,” says Scott, who now serves as an expert witness on police cases in court. “You don’t want this kind of problem to fester. You want to nip it in the bud.”

But it’s unclear whether commanders here see these as isolated cases, or as a chronic problem. Chief Rosie Sizer declined to be interviewed for this story. Instead she released a brief statement by email warning the public against “drawing conclusions about 1,000 officers based on recent reports.”

That’s a lot to ask, given the latest events.

Last week, Sgt. Kyle Nice vaulted the question of entitled behavior into the headlines with an April 3 off-duty road rage incident. After another driver, Neil Ruffin, allegedly blew a red light on a Saturday afternoon, Nice pulled out his gun and police ID. He allegedly dared Ruffin to “go ahead and call the police.”

Washington County declined to press charges. But on April 9, Ruffin filed a $145,000 lawsuit against Nice and the city. The suit says Nice was likely to assume he was “substantially above the law,” because the city had failed to discipline him in the past for using “unreasonable violence.”

The lawsuit doesn’t cite specific violence. But Nice was involved in the 2006 death of James Chasse Jr. in police custody. In that case, Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman ordered Nice and Officer Chris Humphreys to take 80 hours unpaid leave for failing to send Chasse to the hospital. Saltzman and Sizer on Monday ordered Nice off the street and placed him on desk duty following the road-rage incident.

Four days after the police bureau put out a press release about Nice’s case due to questions from the media, The Oregonian reported April 10 that Sgt. Scott Westerman is under investigation for separate incidents in January where he yelled at the same woman on two different days. Westerman, who heads the powerful Portland police union, allegedly threatened to have the woman arrested.

Ed Mamet, a retired New York police captain, says it’s universal in cop culture for police to expect favors from other officers. That was the case in 2006, when now-retired Portland Sgt. Kelly Krohn’s nephew tussled with a Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy during a DUII arrest.

After Ryan Kennedy’s 3:30 am arrest, Krohn showed up at the jail and accused Deputy Steve Steinberg of not doing enough to help. Steinberg shot back that Kennedy had fought with him and his family should be ashamed.

“[Krohn] told me that he has been a police officer for 24 years and that it was apparent that I was new to this profession,” Steinberg wrote in his report. “[Krohn] said that I should not be lecturing him and he wanted to talk to my sergeant.”

There’s no indication Krohn’s efforts worked. Kennedy pleaded guilty in May 2006 to DUII and was sentenced to a diversion program.

Scott says such cases show a need for Portland commanders to set clear standards for officer conduct. George Kirkham, a former cop who teaches criminology at Florida State University, agrees.

“It should be cause for the department to re-emphasize, administratively and in training, that we are not above the law,” Kirkham says.


FACT: The Chasse case wasn’t Nice’s first time in the spotlight for violence. In 1998, he was sued by Ron Barton, a 52-year-old disabled man Nice shot while Barton was home on his couch. Nice said Barton had a shotgun, and a jury sided with Nice.
 
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