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May 23rd, 2001 PHILIP DAWDY | News Stories
 

Watching the Copwatchers

An overdue overhaul of police oversight is coming. Here's the good and the bad.

     
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Last year a group of citizens, frustrated with the city's toothless police watchdog panel, began collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to create real civilian review. Hoping to head them off, Mayor Vera Katz pulled together yet another group of citizens to consider the matter. The mayor's panel descended into name-calling and split along ideological lines. A majority wanted full civilian review; a minority wanted a tune-up of the existing Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee. In January, the City Council anointed City Auditor Gary Blackmer to sort through the mess and come up with a plan.

Blackmer's solution, dubbed the Independent Police Review Division, would field citizen complaints against cops, sit in on police investigations of the complaints or do its own investigation. Citizens unhappy with the outcome could appeal to a citizens committee, which would forward its findings to City Council.

No one's precisely thrilled with the proposal, but City Council is willing to give it a go. Here are a dozen things to like and dislike about it.

Good Cop

1. Gary Blackmer The IPRD proposal will put the city's forthright, no-nonsense elected auditor in charge of the process. This office will become the most micro-inspected collection of cubicles in City Hall. We can't think of anyone else with the integrity to stand naked under that microscope and not cringe.

2. It's independent: For nearly two decades, complaints against cops have been investigated almost exclusively by other cops, in the bureau's Internal Affairs Division. Blackmer's proposal builds into the process increased independent review of citizens' complaints.

3. The cops aren't screaming: With Internal Affairs still in the picture, cops won't revolt--which would sink the plan faster than a police union lawsuit.

4. The chief's in the loop: The police chief still has the authority to determine the level of discipline that officers face for sustained complaints. This keeps politicians from deciding how cops should be disciplined and makes the chief responsible for keeping his troops in line.

5. The council has power: The chief of police can no longer overturn council findings of, for example, excessive force or disparate treatment (i.e., racial profiling).

6. The pressure is on: If the proposal doesn't work in 12-18 months, a majority on the City Council told WW they'd bring full-blown civilian review to Portland. What's more: Folks who want cops on an even shorter leash will be collecting signatures for the Police Accountability Campaign 2002 initiative, under which citizens would discipline cops.

Bad Cop

1. Gary Blackmer: It puts the city auditor in a no-win position: His handling of the IPRD will gore someone's ox. So come 2002, there's a good chance that either the police union or affiliated lefties will head a Dump Gary movement. Even if he doesn't crack under the pressure, there's no guarantee that his successor won't let politics taint the office.

2. It's fickle: Independent review by Blackmer's review squadron is limited to a "whenever we feel like it" scenario. The newly formed Citizen Review Committee will see only cases that make it through the IPRD's window, when the public has made it clear all along that they want more citizen involvement, not less.

3. The cops aren't screaming: The Internal Affairs Division, not exactly a bastion of quality investigations, is still involved. Say no more.

4. Cop shootings are out of the loop: The IPRD won't review police shootings or deaths in custody. Critics call this a major flaw of the proposal, reasoning that few members of the public trust the police to review themselves in these emotion-packed cases.

5. The council has power: The proposal does nothing to address an inherent conflict of interest of one member of the City Council--the mayor, who's also in charge of the police.

6. The records are out: Public access to IPRD documents will require police bureau and city attorney approval. Both offices have historically been loath to hand over any documents that don't fit their political agendas.


City Council will hold a public hearing on the Independent Police Review proposal at 2:30 pm Thursday, May 24, in City Hall.




Commissioners will vote on the proposal the following week.
 
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