Almost four years ago, a Los Angeles County prosecutor named Richard Rosenthal was hired to head Portland's revamped civilian cop-watchdog office. Since then, he has made headlines by issuing a report that blasted the city's handling of officer-involved shootings, by helping expose a cover-up of a beating by off-duty cops outside Stephanos downtown, and also by facing the resignation of five members from his citizens' Independent Police Review committee who said he was too cop-friendly. Rosenthal, who made $89,000 a year here, spoke about those issues and more to WW on July 1, his last day before heading to a similar job that pays $21,000 more in Denver.
WW: Well the big question is: how can you move from Portland to a place like Denver?
Richard Rosenthal: There are probably two places in the country my wife and I would be willing to live in. Portland is one of them, and Denver is the other. The No. 1 issue was not that we were not happy here; we were happy...but the pay was too low.
Well, now that you're leaving, it's OK to tell us: What is the biggest crime you've ever committed and not been caught?
[Laughs] Yeah, right, next question. In Denver, I was walking down the street and the mayor's liaison started to walk against the light, and I stopped and said, 'I can't do it.' You gotta be a Boy Scout in this position. I don't think I've driven over 55 mph since I've been in the state of Oregon.
How does Denver's police-monitor program compare with Portland's?
In Portland, we spend an enormous amount of time because we take all the complaints. In Denver, we'll spend more time on policy. The Denver monitor also has jurisdiction in areas where Portland does not, such as officer-involved shootings, to ensure investigations are adequate and fair from the beginning.
What's the biggest mistake you made here?
A mistake was made in releasing a confidential email on the PARC report [on officer-involved shootings] to members of the citizens' review committee. One of my staff members printed out an email and included it in a public document.
And your biggest success?
The citizen mediation program was huge, the PARC report was huge, and the creation of a management information system where complaints don't get lost anymore.... I give Gary Blackmer [Rosenthal's boss, the City Auditor] an enormous amount of credit because he just basically took police oversight away from the political realm, and we tried to put it in the professional realm.
What's the one thing you'd change about Portland's police culture?
On the whole, the experience I've had with the culture of the Portland Police Bureau is a good one. The Stephanos case was a key point to me. You had lieutenants and sergeants and officers who failed to do their duty on a criminal act by two officers. But it was almost identical to a case in San Francisco called the Fajita incident, and what happened in the two cities was totally different. Once it got to Internal Affairs here, boom-it was just weeks before they were criminally charged. And in San Francisco there was a cover-up. That showed me that this was not the type of culture that I saw in L.A.
Can you name just one thing you would change? One little thing?
The things I would change include that it doesn't have an effective early-warning intervention system [when an officer has multiple Internal Affairs complaints in a short time], and it hasn't since I got here. That's something we're working on but progress has been slow. I'd like to see more movement with respect to deadly-force policies in comparison to other cities and more openness and willingness to adapt.
What's the largest change you'd want in the police union contract?
I'd like to look into what effect officer seniority rights have on the bureau's ability to staff different shifts. I remember going out to roll call on night shifts, and I was shocked at how young all the officers were.
What's your biggest criticism of Police Chief Derrick Foxworth?
I'm not willing to say specifically any criticism. I will say I think he's a work in progress. I will be interested in seeing his responses to the new [officer-involved shootings] review.
Do you think they considered enough candidates for your replacement before choosing Leslie Stevens out of Salem?
The answer is yes, because we went all over the country. And I had a chance to talk to Leslie, and to her references as well. My feeling on it is she's very capable. My hope is she's going to be able to take it to the next step. There are a lot of bodies you step over in creating an (oversight agency). You have to do it by sheer force of will. We made some enormous changes, and the result of it is there's a certain level of animosity or recalcitrance to the people who created the program. So I think it will be interesting to see what reaction she'll get, what support versus resistance she receives. There's a long way to go. I have a list of about 20 things I'd like to see IPR do in the next couple of years.
What tops your wish list of issues where you've been rebuffed or faced resistance?
I don't want to say I've been rebuffed. If I had another management analyst, I would have moved faster, been more aggressive. One of the things I did not have the resources to do was look at the consistency and fairness of discipline: How often does the bureau win at arbitration and take a look at whether it's working or not.
When the union goes to arbitration over a firing, the officer pretty much gets reinstated every time. Is that because Internal Affairs does a crappy job investigating or because the city attorney's office does a poor job?
On the whole, the Internal Affairs investigations I've reviewed have been good. But the lack of resources given the IA Division is a problem. Without the resources, how are they going to be able to do what they need to do on the serious cases that should result in termination or serious discipline? A healthy IA is essential to the health of an organization, and staffing is at a very tenuous level, and it has been since I got here.
What do you think of efforts to open up grand-jury proceedings in officer-involved shootings to the public?
Having been a grand-jury advisor, I don't think there's anything as significant in these hearings as people think there might be. I don't have a problem with cases that don't result in firings being made public in this instance. But I know historically the whole concept has been to protect the person under investigations from humiliation if you don't file charges on them.
Sure, but then the secrecy allows what has gone on in Portland, which is the city brings in a specially paid expert who says every shooting is justified. The victim's family doesn't have forewarning, doesn't have equal opportunity to bring in their own expert.
The problem, though, is that the grand jury is not looking at whether a crime occurred as much as whether the district attorney can convict a person for a crime for what has occurred. It's a very high standard.
The criticism you get from lefty police-accountability folks is that you are a police-union suck-up. I'm curious to what extent you feel like you do have to pick your battles.
Well, the reality is I do not fight battles that I know I'm going to lose. I'm not going to waste public resources to just get headlines and embarrass people when I know I cannot achieve change. So what I do is prioritize my issues. I figure out which ones I'm going to be able to make change. The reality is, I can't force the mayor or the chief or the command staff to do anything. My power is of persuasion and of them knowing they can be embarrassed if we get into a public rift over something. What I've said to people in the bureau is you will see me coming from a mile away: I will never sandbag you; this will give you the opportunity to either (1) convince me that I'm wrong and to go in another direction, or (2) get out of my way and let me do what I need to do, or (3) take credit for it yourself. And I know that there are certain members of the activist community who want me to embarrass the police. But the reality is we accomplished more in 18 months with the PARC shootings report than police accountability in Portland has accomplished in 18 years. We identified and highlighted problems, proposed solutions, and we're following up on them on a regular basis to make sure change is occurring and will remain.
Is it fair to say that as a part of your political give and take, that you have de-emphasized the disciplinary appeals phase that's so important to the Dan Handelmans [a Copwatch volunteer and Rosenthal critic] of the world?
No, I wouldn't say it that way at all. It's true that I have reduced the number of [disciplinary] appeals and the time spent, but it's not been because I don't want to nail people to the wall who've committed misconduct. What I see as a hole with the appeals is that an enormous amount of effort goes into each individual appeal and we don't get really anything out off them. In three and a half years of appeals, we've had maybe two cases out of a hundred that have resulted in changes to sustained findings. And even then the change in discipline was negligible. I would rather see our time and effort spent on things that are going to achieve change, like the active monitoring of complaints. The reality is that what Dan Handelman doesn't see is that there's a case right now where we have [challenged] the findings and we are appealing it internally to the chief. We have had other cases like that where we have challenged findings early on. Often people who should appeal don't and people who shouldn't appeal do.
You've instituted a rule on your citizens committee that says if members are going to criticize you or staff in a meeting, let you know in advance. Isn't that anti-democratic?
No, we're not saying don't criticize us in public. All we're saying is give us a heads-up that this is a concern or an issue and let's discuss it with you ahead of time and then we can have a full-blown discussion in public; but don't sandbag. It's not antagonistic to democracy, it's just good manners.
Has there been one case that really freaked you out?
The biggest case obviously was Stephanos, in that you had criminal acts done by two officers that were covered up not just by officers but by supervisors. But as I said, I was actually really heartened in the end when I saw how well the department reacted to it all.
Do you have any concern over Chief Foxworth's choices for promotion? Three lieutenants he's promoted recently are Todd Wyatt, number one in tort claims filed against the bureau; Mark Kruger-who's got allegations against him that he takes pleasure in use of force and has affiliations with Nazi ideology. And thirdly, Larry Baird, who's also had some issues.
I'm not going to comment on the individual promotions, but one of the things I would have liked to look at is what is the process for promotions. One of the concerns I've heard is that there may be too much credence given to outside evaluations and not enough given to internal knowledge of individuals. I can't say there is a problem with the process. All I know is there are people who believe there are problems with that system, and it's important enough that it warrants an objective review.
Rosenthal's replacement is Leslie Stevens, an assistant city attorney in Salem.