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January 5th, 2005 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

Blue Battle Brewing

Police union picks fight over post-shooting time off.

     
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If you're a Portland cop involved in a fatal shooting and want a few extra days off to clear your head, you can now expect your boss to say, "Not on our dime."

Killing someone is a traumatic event, even when it's justified. In the past, Portland police supervisors often granted officers paid leave for a few days, or even weeks, after a grand jury cleared them of any wrongdoing. The idea was that such officers needed time to recover from the trauma of the shooting and the stress of having a citizens' panel judge their actions.

But, under a new policy sparked by the perception that some cops abuse the bureau's leave policy, officers cleared by a grand jury will have to either give up privileges or use vacation time or sick leave if they don't want to return to work immediately. In a typical year, about a dozen officers are involved in fatal shootings.

The new penny-pinching policy is drawing fire from the officers' union. "It is just so offensive," says Robert King, the president of the Portland Police Association. Officers can't understand the new policy, he says, "and it's not fair to expect them to."

What King is characterizing as the bureau's new Scrooge act surfaced just in time for the holidays. On Nov. 22, Officer Mike Smith killed a bank robber who rushed him with a knife. In early December, Officer Ney Phothivongsa narrowly avoided a bullet to the head in a gun battle in which he fatally shot a car thief who fired first. After the shootings were ruled justified, both cops asked for a few extra days of paid administrative leave; both requests, however, were denied by Assistant Chief Stanley Grubbs, reportedly over the objections of the officers' precinct commanders.

Aside from using their own sick time or vacation days, officers can qualify for disability pay if a doctor rules that the trauma is severe enough to impair them on the job. This helps the bureau in that the money comes from the city's police pension fund, not the bureau's budget. What's troubling to the union, though, is that disability results in a loss of the officer's perks: precinct and shift assignments they've earned, as well as a spot on any special teams. Instead, they have to take the next open spot in the bureau, meaning they stand to lose the friendships and the work routines on which their personal lives rely.

Union officials and police experts say pushing traumatized cops back to work before they're ready is a bad idea. Police psychologist Ron Turco, a reserve Beaverton cop who works with many Oregon police agencies, says it can be a risk to the public to have an officer on the streets who is not ready. But he supports the bureau's policy, saying those officers should be in treatment, not just taking time off. "They can't have it both ways," says Turco.

Another national police-shootings expert, however, says if Portland adopts a policy driven by "bureaucrats and bean-counters," it will hurt the caliber of Portland police work throughout the bureau. An extra week or two of paid leave at a couple of thousand dollars per week amounts to "paltry pennies," says Arizona psychologist Alexis Artwohl, who is married to a former Portland assistant chief. "If good officers in justified shootings are not given this minor, very cheap consideration by the department, symbolically it speaks volumes to every single other officer who works in that department."

Grubbs, through police spokesman Brian Schmautz, defended the new rule as an effort to "standardize policy" and prevent potential abuse.

But the union, which usually keeps its battles private, is making an issue out of the bureau's new policy--and of Grubbs, whom officers blame for it--just as former Police Chief Tom Potter takes over as mayor.

King says some of his members are calling for a vote of no-confidence in Grubbs--a symbolic move normally reserved for chiefs. "He is not helping," says King. "In fact, he is being harmful."

Although Potter is friendly with Foxworth, it's an open question whether the new mayor, who will take over the police, will get along with Grubbs, a notorious micro-manager who handles the day-to-day operation of the bureau.

The union now plans to survey its members later this month to decide what to do next. Says King, "At this point we have one goal, and it's to make sure people are taken care of."

 
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