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April 14th, 2004 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

Get on the Train

In the wake of another police killing, Katz and Foxworth put officer training in their sights.

     
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IMAGE: STEVEN LANE
As Portland nears its first public inquest into a police shooting in 20 years, Mayor Vera Katz and Chief Derrick Foxworth are already looking beyond it.

Following the death of James Jahar Perez in the second controversial shooting of an unarmed African American in the past year, Katz told WW she and the chief agree what needs to be done next: drill down on how Portland cops are trained.

"What you're really going to have to do is dig, dig, dig down deep," she told WW in a recent interview. "How do we present the use of force [to new officers]? What is the message in all the exercises that they do?"

Katz's focus is timely. Interviews with a number of Portland cops and other law-enforcement professionals indicate a growing sentiment that, while the individual shootings over the past year may be legally defensible, there is a problem at the Portland Police Bureau. Officers describe a culture that trains officers to be quick in pulling a gun--and, sometimes, the trigger.

"We're becoming scaredy-cops," says Tom Mack, the longtime Portland officer who, like other bureau veterans, thinks something has changed. "We've raised [new officers] to be afraid of people."

Mack is echoed in more tactful terms by John Minnis, the 27-year Portland cop who now heads the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.

"Over time, there has been less focus on training decision-making and options," he says. "There is a very high emphasis given to officer survival or protecting yourself and making sure you go home at night and that sort of thing, which I would suggest is probably a result of diminished capacity to train overall.

"One might reasonably believe that might lead someone to perhaps make not as many decisions, or run through a series of decisions in their mind, about whether they shoot or they don't shoot."

Every new officer in Oregon undergoes a 10-week basic training at Minnis' department. In Portland, they then undergo an additional 14 weeks of advanced training.

DPSST training Lt. Ken Herbst agrees officer survival is increasingly a primary concern of new officers. "I think our society is now more violent, so I think officers do worry more about [being attacked]," he says.

It is not just training for new officers at issue; many cops criticize the caliber of Portland's sergeants, who are supposed to ensure good decision-making. According to Herbst, most police departments in Oregon require sergeants to receive special training. In Portland, however, it has been years since sergeants received training. Next month will be the first sergeant's academy in Portland since October 2000, says Lt. Mike Crebs of the Portland training division.

Officer Mack says that whether it's last year's shooting of Kendra James by Officer Scott McCollister or the more recent shooting of Perez involving Officer Jason Sery, Portland needs to look beyond the incident itself.

"Someone is looking for a scapegoat to blame it on," Mack says. "It seems like the scapegoat is always the guy on the street who has to make the split-second decision. I blame the bureau. Firing McCollister or firing Sery is not going to solve the problem."

 
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