Tom Potter stops midway through the interview to make one thing perfectly clear: He's running for mayor, not chief of police. Yet, with the May primary approaching and the Portland Police Bureau still in the news, Potter has something his rivals can only dream of: the ability to tout his experience as the city's top cop.
Today, under the guidance of Chief Derrick Foxworth, the bureau seems more stable than it's been since...well, since Potter stepped down in 1993. But there's no denying the lingering headline hangover from the days of former Chief Mark Kroeker: the internal revolt within the city's cop-watchdog committee, a report portraying the bureau as adrift on "community policing," and the residual anger over the killing of Kendra James.
Potter, who sat down with WW for an interview last week, was glad to talk about all of them.
Last August, the city's Independent Police Review office suffered a major blow when five members of its citizen review committee resigned, protesting that the watchdog was toothless. The revolt sparked another round of criticism over the fact that Portland's form of civilian oversight is not as independent as that of many other cities.
Potter says it's too soon to pull the plug on Portland's system, now two years old. "The information I've seen is that regardless of what form police accountability takes, whatever system you use doesn't necessarily reduce the overall incidence of police misconduct," he says.
The real focus, says Potter, needs to be on recruiting and training. "You have to ask yourself, why is it that we keep focusing on the back end of the [police misconduct] problem?" he says. "We need to go to the front end and look to see who we hire, and what kinds of qualities and personality traits and emotional states do we want in the people who we hire."
Similarly, Potter says the bureau needs to put more emphasis on preparing those officers once they're hired. Portland is one of the few cities its size with no central training facility and has cut the hours of training by 25 percent since Potter left the job. "When I became chief we had no training whatsoever, and I got it back up to a week," he says. "The training at the bureau has been greatly reduced so that a lot of their training occurs at roll call rather than in classroom settings."
Potter's views on recruitment and training fit into his belief in "community policing." Potter didn't invent the phrase, which is a favored buzzword among politicians, but he succeeded in linking his name to it. In short, it's the idea that cops should spend much of their time outside their patrol cruisers, walking neighborhoods, connecting with residents and stopping problems before they require a 911 call.
In 1995 the U.S. government named Portland a model for community-oriented policing. Last year, however, the City Club issued a report blasting the bureau for abandoning the cooperative mindset that Potter is credited with helping introduce. Naysayers within the bureau say to show them the money: restore the depleted ranks of officers on the street, and they will have more time to throw in some warm fuzzies.
"Community policing isn't so much resource-driven as it is a state of mind," Potter counters. But he says that as mayor, he'd target both. "Number one, we're going to provide you the resources to make it happen; secondly, it's going to require a change in how the police are supervised to ensure they get out of their cars and communicate. It's a long-term process--it's not going to occur overnight. But it's going to start on the first day."
While such statements may get eye-rolls from the rank and file, Potter still feels some kinship with the cops on the street. When Scott McCollister recently returned from a suspension imposed for his role in the Kendra James shooting, a group called Rose City Copwatch distributed fliers offering a reward for his photo, calling him a "predator" and stating that they intended to drive him from the police force.
When asked about such tactics, Potter turned surly. "I think that's pretty disgusting," he said. "And it would be disgusting if the same thing were being done for doctors who provide abortions.
"I know that there's extreme dissatisfaction with how the police are providing services, with the kinds of treatment that people receive at the hands of the police and people have their First Amendment right. But that kind of vigilantism leads to some very negative things in our community."
TOM POTTER IS CAREFUL not to criticize former chiefs, though he did take issue with Mark Kroeker's early directive for officers to get paramilitary-style haircuts. "I'm not as concerned about what grows over your ears as what goes on between them," says Potter.