U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
sent one of his top deputies to Portland on Wednesday to announce a review of the Portland Police Bureau
, aimed at determining whether police officers have exhibited a pattern of civil rights abuses.
The review is a part of the Obama Justice Department's renewed pursuit of civil rights cases
following years of neglect during the George W. Bush years—and after persistent allegations of excessive force by Portland police.
The announcement comes one day after the Justice Department said it wouldn't bring criminal charges against Portland police officers involved in the shooting of the unarmed Aaron Campbell
in January 2010.
One possible outcome of the review: If the feds find deep problems in the bureau, they could launch a formal system of monitoring of the police. Or the review could produce a series of recommendations.
Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez promised to conduct a review that is "serious" and "thorough" yet "collaborates" with the bureau. Asked if that collaborative approach might hurt the investigation's credibility in the eyes of Portlanders who lack trust in the police department, Perez replied, "Absolutely not."
"Independence and collaboration are not mutually exclusive, "Perez said. "When you spend time at the outset arguing whether there is a problem, that's actually a worst-case scenario."
Perez cited the Justice Department's recent investigation of corruption and unwarranted violence by police in New Orleans.
is "about as high up as you can go without the Attorney General coming
to town," says Portland attorney Dennis Steinman, who is representing former police bureau
recruit Lindsay Hunt in her whistleblower case against the bureau.
"He's made it very very clear to the U.S. attorneys around the country
that civil rights is at the forefront of what DOJ wants."
Some skeptics are already raising doubts about the scope of the review.
"I am not optimistic that it will make any difference," Portland attorney Dave
Park, who represents clients in police misconduct cases, tells WW. The
root issue, he says, is the "militaristic" police culture and jurors who are often unwilling to hold the police accountable.
"As long as that's the
case, reviews and commissions and recommendations and policy changes
won't make a difference," Park says. "What changes things is a
perception that the community expects its cops to be honest, use good
judgment, and not cover up for corruption within the department.
Honestly, the community does not enforce these expectations."
The review will focus on how Portland police respond to incidents involving mentally ill people, which has been an issue in many recent cases involving police use of force. Former state Rep. Jo Ann Bowman, who attended the press conference alongside leaders and activists from Portland's African-American community, said the focus on mental illness was a distraction from the issue of race and racial profiling by police.
Perez is asking
for tips from Portlanders with "insights" about police use of force.
Email email@example.com or call 877-218-5228.
Perez is also speaking today at Lincoln High School, where, alongside Mayor Sam Adams, he will talk about bullying.