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June 26th, 2013 ANDREA DAMEWOOD | Q & A
 

Hotseat: Constantin Severe

Portland’s new police watchdog on how to keep cops accountable.

news3_3934CONSTANTIN SEVERE - IMAGE: Evan Johnson
     
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As a first-generation Haitian-American growing up in Brooklyn and Miami, Constantin Severe hated cops.

Then he learned to like them during his time as a defense attorney with Metropolitan Public Defender in Portland. And now, Severe, 37, leads the office that is responsible for holding Portland police officers accountable.

On June 20, he replaced Mary-Beth Baptista as director of the city auditor’s Independent Police Review division.

Severe steps into the $105,000-a-year position after serving as the IPR’s assistant director since 2008.

He’s got a lot of work ahead: The IPR reviews cases, investigates some itself, and forwards others to police internal affairs, and it must approve every internal investigation and every commander’s findings. 

It’s also on the front lines of carrying out the police reforms mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Severe talks about why the Police Bureau should have fired Capt. Todd Wyatt for inappropriately touching female police employees, and why Hales is ultimately responsible to fix the bureau.


WW: First, do you like cops?

Constantin Severe: When I was a kid, I didn’t like cops. Cops made me afraid. When I was in law school [at Vanderbilt University], I was in a Kinko’s, and I was the first person out the door when a silent alarm got tripped. I opened the door and there’s this cop pointing his Glock in my face, like, a foot away. I was pretty upset. But, being a criminal defense attorney, you read a lot of police reports, you meet a lot of police officers, and I came away with a lot of respect for police officers. So to answer your question, yeah. Now. If you asked 16-year-old me that? Definitely not.


What’s the most common complaint your office gets?

The biggest complaint people have is officers being rude to them. You know, this officer disrespected me, yelled at me, balled up the ticket and threw it in my car. Folks need to advocate for themselves. If they are in a situation or know of a situation where something like that happened, they need to contact our office. 


What’s your first priority?

Look at the city code, and see what needs to be changed. We’re going to have to speed up the way we do things, because the DOJ agreement says an entire investigation must be done [within] 180 days. IPR is also supposed to be able to do meaningful independent investigations, but there are several parts of the code that interfere with that. IPR can’t talk to the officers directly, and have to go through an internal affairs liaison, for example.


Mary-Beth Baptista didn’t hide the fact she was frustrated that Chief Mike Reese didn’t fire Capt. Todd Wyatt this year. What’s your take?

As a former defense attorney, I want to say that wasn’t justice, but that’s not the right word. That wasn’t accountability.


How do you fix accountability?

I think a discipline guideline is key. One of the biggest issues for our office, and just oversight in general, isn’t just that officers aren’t being held accountable. We publish an annual report that says a certain amount of officers were disciplined this year. But I don’t think we’ve been able to show either to the public or to police officers what the standard is.


Do you see any groups getting favor?

 Across the board, there’s this pattern of when commanding officers get in trouble they’re not held to the same standard that officers are held to. A discipline guide, that’s one of the purposes of it. Everybody’s treated the same.


Is there any role for the IPR in discipline decisions?

Make it more transparent—make the board’s recommendation, the chief’s recommendation, and if they differ, make it public. Sometimes things change pretty drastically, and for the public to be able to understand each step of the process is important.


Who do you think is ultimately responsible?

Portland’s greatest strength, and greatest weakness, is that every bureau has an elected official as their head. The Police Bureau has the police commissioner [Hales]. That’s where the buck stops. The Police Review Board is an advisory body to the chief of police and the police commissioner, right? If the chief of police or the police commissioner decide not to follow that, that is where the public needs to hold them accountable.


Pick three adjectives to describe the Police Bureau.

They’re really hardworking. They’re evolving. The bureau has changed, but I think there’s some ways that the bureau could move a lot faster. We’re trying to change the bureau and make it more responsive. The PPB is also complicated. For somebody whose job it is to make sure that the police are accountable, and at the same time not unfairly target individual officers or unfairly target the organization, it takes a lot of effort to understand it. 

 
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