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February 23rd, 2005 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

Good Cop, Bad Cop

The city wants to rein in officers like Lt. Todd Wyatt.

     
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Several years ago in Northeast Portland, Officer Todd Wyatt responded to a report of squatters at a vacant apartment. He arrived and found himself grappling with a man he recalls being a "mountain."

Andrew Ohulous Waites, who turned out to be a meth-head with a cache of semi-automatic assault rifles, shoved Wyatt into a wall—"This hurt a lot," he wrote in his report. The cop gave chase over the course of several blocks, yelling "lay down! lay down!," firing streams of pepper spray into the man's face and using his baton to whack him in the elbow, knees and head.

The man finally collapsed at Northeast 11th Avenue and Hancock Street, his head bleeding. After cuffing him, Wyatt sat back catching his breath, waiting for backup to arrive and watching a pool of the man's blood spread out on the pavement.

"Asshole," Wyatt recalls thinking. "You deserved that."

To some citizens and colleagues, Portland needs more cops like Wyatt. "He did an excellent job," the landlord, Augoustis "Gus" Tiniakos, wrote in a thank-you letter to the Police Bureau following the squatter incident.

Wyatt is exactly the kind of guy "you want coming to your house if you're in trouble, because he will take care of business," says his former supervisor, ex-Capt. C.W. Jensen. Force, he adds, is "part of the game. Criminals use excessive force all the time."

Sgt. Todd Davis, an 18-year veteran of the bureau known for his authoritarian style—his nickname is "Knuckles"—calls Wyatt "a hard-working, no-nonsense street cop—kinda like I was back then."

Indeed, Wyatt's rise through the ranks of the nearly 1,000-member Portland Police Bureau is impressive. At 36, he is the second-youngest lieutenant in the bureau.

To others, however, the anecdote above describes a rogue cop inflicting "street justice"—a Dirty Harry, a Charles Bronson in uniform.

According to 14-year Multnomah County judge Janice Wilson, Wyatt is the only cop she's ever filed an official complaint against—accusing him of rudeness as well as excessive force.

Wyatt committed "misconduct both inside the courtroom and outside the courtroom," says Judge Wilson. "I have never seen a police officer behave with such arrogance and disrespect."

Wyatt himself is quick to volunteer that he has been called a liar, a brute and a racist. And according to city records obtained under Oregon Public Records Law, Wyatt has generated more threats of lawsuits against the Portland Police Bureau than any other cop.

This story—of an officer who is well-regarded by his peers but generates complaints from citizens—is significant now because next month the Portland City Council is expected to vote on a measure that would rein in cops like Wyatt. The measure, proposed by the city's cop watchdog office, would require that every time a threat of legal action—called a tort claim—is filed against the city's police bureau, it will be handled like any other complaint against the police, potentially leading to an investigation and discipline.

The measure's advocates believe it will lead to better policing by closing a loophole that allows misconduct to go unpunished. But critics, including Wyatt, think it could lead to more officers being gun-shy of discipline and scared to do anything more than the minimum to keep their jobs—a situation some will tell you is increasingly a problem in Portland.

"I can take you to any precinct, look at a roster and say, 'Here's your good cops and here's your lazy cops,'" Sgt. Davis says. "You know, probably 20 percent of the officers in this police bureau right now are willing to go out and go that extra mile and get these complaints. The rest of 'em are sitting in their cars with their heads in the sand just taking radio calls—and not even doing those right."

Wyatt's uniform pants fit him like jodhpurs on a cavalry horseman on TV—the trousers hanging loose around his skinny thighs, then tapering at the calf. At 5 feet 11 inches, Wyatt is only 170 pounds but is a former weightlifter who once benched 250.

His shirt is drawn tight across a muscled back, and his posture is ramrod-straight, a holdover from his time in the Marine reserves. He looks a decade younger than his true age and has a grin that verges on goofy—a friend calls it "that Opie Taylor smile."

On a recent nighttime ride-along in his old turf, a predominantly African-American part of Northeast Portland, Wyatt said he never thought about being a cop when he attended Parkrose High School. But at his gym, while a junior majoring in business at Portland State University, he met Officer Davis, who told him it was a good gig.

The idea appealed to Wyatt, a devout Lutheran and one-eighth Cherokee Indian who grew up reading Hardy Boys adventure novels and was steeped by his ex-soldier father in personal accountability and a strong belief in right and wrong.

Wyatt first worked for the St. Helens Police Department and made a name for himself when one night, riding home from work on his Honda Nighthawk motorcycle, he came across a weaving car. He busted the man, whom he recognized as St. Helens' mayor—the same one who'd given him a medal for valor just a few months before.

"My lieutenant said, 'Why did you arrest the mayor?,'" Wyatt recalls.

"Because he was drunk, sir."

"No, no, no. Why did you arrest the mayor?"

"Because he was drunk, sir."

Coming to Portland in 1991, Wyatt did the usual rookie rotation of 18 months in different assignments.

He then landed in North Precinct, a magnet for young, energetic cops. It was a time when crack was ripping apart the black community. Gang shootings were frequent, and, Wyatt says, it was a great time to be a cop: pulling people over, trying to stop the violence.

"Guns and gangsters—it was awesome," recalled Wyatt as he drove the Northeast streets. "I remember feeling I could make a difference."

He did make a difference—but people disagreed on what kind. It was a rocky time for Wyatt, and he learned about the realities of being a cop in a dangerous, racially charged territory:

* There was the time at Northeast 17th Avenue and Alberta Street when he and a fellow cop were driving past a group of 50 or 60 people; three guys stepped from the crowd and started firing at him, punching bulletholes in their squad car's trunk.

* He remembers coming upon a black man lying on the ground, bleeding, at Sumner Street and 17th Avenue. Wyatt got out of the car and walked over to him: "Hey, man, you OK?"

"Fuck you, peckerwood," came the response. "Get me a doctor."

* Once, at 18th and Sumner, a teenager was running with a gun in his waistband. Wyatt drove up alongside, his right hand on the wheel, his left hand pointing a pistol at the kid, yelling at him: "Drop it! Drop it!"

The boy stuck the gun under his arm, said "don't shoot me," and ran away. He turned out to have shot a girl earlier that night and was charged with attempted murder.

"I remember the prosecutor telling me, 'You know, Todd, if you had just shot this guy we wouldn't have had this trouble of convicting him,'" says Wyatt. "He was serious."

Wyatt did not always behave with such restraint. And he soon became a focus of police Internal Affairs complaints—and threats of lawsuits (see sidebar)—from the residents of Northeast.

In 1996, he was accused of perjury after testifying that a man was guilty of drunk driving and assault when in fact Wyatt had written a police report saying the guilty party was actually the man's cousin, a well-known thug with gang tattoos on both arms.

Wyatt says it was an innocent mistake that could have been dealt with in five minutes if the defense lawyers had just notified him he had the wrong guy.

Instead," he says, "we spent most of the morning in court [resolving it] because it was fun for them."

The same year, in a trial of a woman who Wyatt testified cut his forehead open with a key, almost taking out his eye, the defense lawyer claimed Wyatt lied. At the trial, Dwight Ford, a black ex-cop who is friends with Chief Derrick Foxworth, testified that Wyatt had roughed up his son and had a reputation within the bureau as racially biased. A jury found the woman not guilty.

"You citizens of Portland don't believe me," Wyatt recalls thinking to himself, "and it's all because of the color of my skin."

Also in 1996, Wyatt was investigated by Internal Affairs for handcuffing three teenagers who'd wised off to him outside Northeast Precinct and detaining them there for hours—without citing them, arresting them or accusing them of any crime. Wyatt received a letter of reprimand.

"I was raised to be polite, and I expect people to be polite back," Wyatt says. "So when they are rude and nasty to me, one of my faults is being doubly nasty and doubly rude back."

But, says Wyatt, he's worked hard to change: "I've spent years asking God for more patience…. I've found that the longer I'm at this job the smoother I am, even if people are being rude and abusive to me."

Wyatt eventually decided to transfer to predominantly white Southeast Portland, in part because the complaints and hostility in Northeast made him feel like part of an occupying army.

"Some guys can work here their entire careers," Wyatt recalls as he pilots his vehicle through his old turf. "But I couldn't stand the hatred."

While some citizen complaints against Wyatt made it to the bureau, none led to serious discipline. But many of the more serious allegations against him came in threats of legal action from people looking for monetary compensation. Currently, such tort claims aren't automatically reviewed by the bureau's Internal Affairs unit for potential discipline of the officer. As a result, there are usually no consequences for the cop.

Some cops say the number of tort claims filed against Wyatt doesn't mean he was a bad officer. Quite the contrary.

"Geeks don't get tort claims," says ex-Capt. Jensen. "The guys that don't work hard, they don't get tort claims because they don't do anything."

Sgt. Davis agrees, saying, "Hard-working cops get more complaints and more lawsuits—it's just a fact."

These same officers argue that the measure coming before City Council next month will further handcuff cops and make them less willing to do their job for fear of generating a record with Internal Affairs, an attitude Wyatt says is already common: He calls it "disengaged."

On the recent Fat Tuesday in downtown Portland, he said, a fellow lieutenant personally arrested six drunken revelers. "There's no freaking way a lieutenant should make six arrests," says Wyatt. "Afterward, we were asking ourselves, 'What percentage of arrests are made by supervisors because our officers are disengaged?"

Alexis Artwohl, a psychologist who specializes in police issues, says she hears such concerns all over the country. The phenomenon in which low police morale leads to less arrests and more crime is real and is called "depolicing," she says, adding: "I think it's a topic that deserves a lot more research."

Despite these concerns, the measure is expected to receive the support of the City Council next month.

Richard Rosenthal, who as head of the city's Independent Police Review unit serves as Portland's top cop watchdog, has been pushing for this change. He wants every lawsuit or threat of lawsuit to be reviewed for potential officer misconduct, the same way a citizens' Internal Affairs complaint is now. Currently, only Seattle, Boise and Los Angeles County handle tort claims in such a way.

Rosenthal, a former L.A. prosecutor, says cops' fears are overblown. Just because a tort claim is filed, that doesn't mean an officer will have a potentially career-altering probe looming over his head. "They will be filtered" and only some investigated, he says.

Indeed, Judge Wilson, who presided over a resisting-arrest trial involving Wyatt in 2003, is one who doesn't have a lot of confidence in bureau investigations.

Though the defendants were found guilty of resisting arrest, she and jurors concluded that Wyatt nevertheless engaged in excessive force, emptying his pepper-spray canister and striking one with his baton repeatedly. As a consequence, the judge filed a complaint against Wyatt with the bureau, hoping he would be disciplined. The bureau dismissed her complaints with little investigation, as Rosenthal notified her in a 2003 letter that implicitly endorsed the result.

"Based on the response," the judge told WW, "I have no intention of ever filing a similar complaint."

Rosenthal's reputation as a pro-cop moderate may explain why the Portland Police Assocation is not reacting more vehemently. President Robert King says the union has not taken an official position on the measure.

One question mark is former police chief and now mayor Tom Potter. During the mayoral campaign, he told WW he supported Rosenthal's proposal. But since then he has not taken an official position. His former co-worker and ally, Chief Foxworth, last fall issued a position paper that opposed it. Similarly, then-Mayor Vera Katz panned the idea, saying investigating a potential legal action would only create a paper trail that would help plaintiffs' lawyers and cost the city money.

The new process may lead to more Internal Affairs investigations, but Commander Rosie Sizer, one of Wyatt's mentors, does not think that's necessarily a bad thing. She thinks the Internal Affairs process helped Wyatt rethink his approach.

"I think he was regarded as being pretty rigid at the beginning of his career and maybe not very thoughtful," Sizer says. "And what I've seen in Todd is a maturation process. I think he's grown a lot."

Ironically, says Foxworth, it was Wyatt's willingness in 2003 to briefly take a job as an Internal Affairs investigator that prepared him for more responsibility.

"He had been on the other side [of the citizens' complaint process] for such a long time," Foxworth says. "He was willing to step out of his comfort zone." Learning to empathize with citizens, the chief adds, "made him a better person and a better supervisor."

Wyatt still believes Rosenthal's proposal will discourage some cops from aggressively fighting crime: "It would increase the percentage of disengaged officers, guaranteed," he says. "Having said that, we have an obligation to be transparent."

"It'll be hard on morale, but I'm not saying we shouldn't be doing it," he adds. "On the other hand, we could be as transparent as daylight and some people would never trust us—because they don't want to."

WW intern Pete Hunt provided research assistance for this article.

The King of Torts

Threats of lawsuit filed against the Portland Police Bureau, called tort claims, may lead to a cash settlement between the city and whoever filed it. If the city's attorneys think the claim has some merit—or that it might convince a jury—they will offer a settlement. Otherwise, they deny the claim (claimants can still sue if they think they have a chance). But in the past tort claims by themselves have not brought about either an investigation or a discipline of the officer.

Under a proposal that reaches the City Council next month, that would change.

What follows is a sampling of the tort claims involving Todd Wyatt, who in the past decade was named in more such notices than any other Portland officer.

Some tort claims were investigated by the bureau because the citizen filed a separate complaint against the cop with Internal Affairs. But most received no investigation at all.

Because the city's records are incomplete and because disciplinary investigations are not available to the public, the following information does not list every investigation and may not list every legal settlement resulting from the claims.

1993: Walter Honstein claims Wyatt used excessive force in arresting him after he declined to identify himself. In his report, Wyatt said he pepper-sprayed Honstein only after the man squared off in a "fighting stance." His partner's report, however, says Honstein merely pushed Wyatt's arm away to walk past him and was pepper-sprayed. The claim was denied and no cash settlement offered.

1994: David Ford, son of a former Portland cop who was an old friend of Chief Derrick Foxworth, claims that after a traffic stop Wyatt slammed him against the vehicle, motivated by race. Claim denied.

1995: Jeff Davis, prosecuted for a crime it was later determined that his cousin committed, claims that Wyatt knowingly testified falsely against him. Wyatt says it was an innocent mistake. Davis received a small settlement. In this case a complaint was made to the bureau as well; after being investigated, Wyatt received a letter of reprimand.

1996: Wyatt arrests Anthony Lowery, a friend of Trail Blazer Damon Stoudamire, for having a cup with a small amount of wine at a barbecue near Woodlawn Park, detaining him for three hours. Because an open-container violation does not rise to the level of an arrestable offense—and because Lowery said he was on private property—a judge found him not guilty. Lowery received a settlement of about $10,000. "Wyatt—I still remember that name," he told WW. "He was an asshole."

1997: Richard Mezo claims Wyatt damaged his car by ramming a struggling suspect against it. He receives a small settlement.

1998: Wyatt arrests a drunk Dana Morgan, who has been assaulting people outside La Luna; he accidentally breaks her arm while subduing her. She files a claim against the city, but a security videotape shows Wyatt did everything right. Claim denied.

2001: Wyatt arrests a drunk Justin Martin along with his brother and father after the three resist arrest for disorderly conduct at the Rheinlander Restaurant. The three were found guilty, but the judge filed a complaint urging Wyatt be disciplined because she and the jurors felt he had used excessive force with pepper-spray and his baton. The claim was denied and the bureau did little investigation.

2002: Lloyd Marbet and four other plaintiffs sue Wyatt and other officers after an August protest outside the downtown Hilton where President George Bush was holding a fundraiser. Wyatt is sued because at Southwest 2nd Avenue and Alder Street he set up a line of cops to direct protesters down a blind alley toward Waterfront Park. Some protesters didn't trust the cops' plans, and two parents, holding their babies high, tried to move past officers in the other direction. The parents and babies were pepper-sprayed, leading to a settlement of $300,000, not including legal fees that are expected to push that figure close to $1 million. —NB


A tort claim is an official notice that informs a public agency of a potential lawsuit.

Under state law, a tort claim must be sent before filing a lawsuit. In contrast, a federal lawsuit does not require a tort claim beforehand; most lawyers send them anyway.

Many hard-charging cops do not generate as many tort claims as Todd Wyatt. Officers Jim Stradley and Mark Zylawi, considered two of the hardest-working cops in Portland, have received only eight and six claims in the last decade, respectively.

Wyatt's personnel file includes 53 letters of commendation for his efforts. They were sent by citizens, supervisors and groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Lt. Harry Jackson, Todd Wyatt's supervisor in Northeast, echoed colleagues in saying Wyatt used pepper spray more than any of his coworkers.

Sgt. Todd Davis says his nickname, "Knuckles," was bestowed upon him as a joke after he attempted to punch a suspect who was assaulting an officer and missed, instead hitting the side of a car.

In early 2003, after then-Southeast Precinct Commander Stanley Grubbs initiated an investigation into who broke the front panel on the office copier, then-sergeant Wyatt came forward and admitted kicking it in anger.

In 2003, the Portland Police Bureau received 801 internal-affairs complaints of officer misconduct, of which 28 were sustained and led to discipline. In 2004, the Bureau received 816 complaints; nine have been sustained, and many investigations are pending.

 
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