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July 23rd, 2003 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

MUZZLING the WATCHDOG

City auditor mulls purge of police oversight committee.

     
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T.J. Browning is leaving her volunteer post with the city's Independent Police Review division because, she says, director Richard Rosenthal and his boss, City Auditor Gary Blackmer, have made IPR "a sham."
Two weeks ago, even as Portland was still abuzz with the fatal police shooting of Kendra James, the City Council did something strange. By a unanimous vote, the council reined in the public's most visible watchdog on the Portland Police Bureau--the citizens review committee of the Independent Police Review division.

The vote was intended to settle a power struggle between bureaucrats at the IPR and an increasingly vocal group of citizen cop-watchers who sit on its review committee.

The new ordinance handed City Auditor Gary Blackmer, who oversees the IPR, the sole power over who sits on the nine-member committee.

But instead of quieting the controversy at IPR, the council vote is likely to increase the volume.

"It's just very clear they would like us to be silent, give our seal of approval and just stay out of the way," says T.J. Browning, a de facto leader on the citizens committee.

The issue is significant because the committee is not just one of those do-nothing panels. Rather, it is the court of last resort for Portlanders who file complaints of misconduct against police officers.

Here's how it works: Citizens' complaints are handled by the Portland Police Bureau, which investigates allegations and metes out discipline. These actions can be reviewed by the IPR's director, Richard Rosenthal. Then, if the complainant protests that the discipline is too weak, IPR's citizen review committee can hold a public hearing and call for more investigation or stiffer punishment.

A recent annual report touted IPR's successes. The bureau heeded Rosenthal's suggestions in 22 cases; out of 36 appeals decided by the citizens committee, 10 cases resulted in stiffer officer discipline.

But the full picture is not as rosy. A five-member faction of the citizens review committee has been trying to beef up the committee's independence--only to be rebuffed by Blackmer and Rosenthal.

The conflict is as much about personal styles as it is policy. Whereas Browning is blunt and confrontational, Blackmer tries to keep a good working relationship with the police.

Last month, perceiving Blackmer and Rosenthal as little more than police patsies, Browning and her allies voted to grant themselves control over who is selected to fill vacancies on the committee--instead of sharing that power with Blackmer, as had been the case.

Blackmer promptly asked the City Council to give him sole control over nominations--and got it.

Asked whether the Browning faction is now targeted for removal when their terms expire, Rosenthal tactfully replied in the affirmative. IPR is "looking for citizens who can be objective and fair, not just to the community interest but also to the Police Bureau," he told WW. "And yes, Gary will be looking at whether or not the applicants will be willing to work within the law, within the confines of what City Council determined they wanted the CRC to be."

Blackmer says he's made no decision about whether Browning and other outspoken members will be reappointed, but he adds Browning's main achievement on the committee has been "drawing attention for herself and her ideology."

But some observers question the push to rein in the committee. The nation's premier police-accountability expert, University of Nebraska professor Sam Walker, helped design the IPR and has been following the clash from afar. He says the insurgents should not be removed for merely trying to make the committee stronger and more independent.

"They have the right to do that," says Walker. "I mean, that's their job."

Bob Ueland, one of the most pro-cop committee members, agrees: "They have been testing the limits of our powers, and I think that's healthy."

IPR has already begun receiving applications for the seats that expire in October, which include Browning's. Police critics like Dan Handelman of Copwatch and Dave Mazza of the Police Accountability Campaign predict that if a tamer committee results, it will provide fodder for yet another ballot measure to replace IPR with something more aggressive. "I've been consulting with a lawyer on the language," says Mazza.

At press time, WW learned that Browning has decided not to reapply for her post: "I cannot lend my talent, efforts and time to something that is a sham."

 
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