Failure To Comply

The feds have used independent monitors to reform police agencies elsewhere. But Portland leaders don't want one here.

The U.S. Department of Justice last week released a damning report about the Portland Police Bureau’s use of force. The details may have been shocking, but the conclusion wasn’t necessarily a surprise: The Bureau’s leaders have failed to rein in brutal treatment of mentally ill Portlanders.

The feds have had the Police Bureau under investigation for more than a year. In response to the findings, Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese quickly agreed to work toward adopting the feds' recommendations, including better training and faster investigations of officer misconduct.

The city officially doesn't agree with the report's conclusions that police have a pattern and practice of excessive force in dealing with the mentally ill. But the eager compliance with the Justice Department's recommendations helps portray City Hall and the police as cooperative—while potentially reducing the degree of oversight Portland will get from the feds.

City leaders want to avoid one remedy that has succeeded in cleaning up other police departments around the country: the appointment of an outside, independent monitor who can bring down the hammer.

Outside monitors have worked to bring about big changes in the police forces in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and they are going into effect in New Orleans and Seattle.

The Police Bureau has often resisted outside oversight and been slow to adopt reforms regarding use of force—although Reese insists the Bureau is changing. Local officials hate the idea of giving up the city's largest and most powerful bureau to outside control—even though doing so has been effective in other cities to force lasting change in police tactics.

During last week's announcement of his agency's report, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said he expects the Justice Department to seek a consent decree in federal court, essentially binding the city to agreed-upon reforms.

But absent from the announcement was any talk of an independent monitor. Instead, Perez talked of local oversight. The Justice Department says it has already agreed with the city to "create a body to ensure increased community oversight of reforms." DOJ officials didn't respond to WW's requests for comment.

The candidates for mayor, Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith, both tell WW they oppose an independent outside monitor to oversee reforms.

So does Reese, who made clear last week he disagrees with the report's findings but points to progress, including a reduction by one-third in use-of-force incidents over the past four years.

"We've been talking about use of force and adapting to meet community expectations," Reese says. "We have made changes."

Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner says he also disagrees with the feds' conclusions. "None of the cases I saw in there was an excessive use of force," he tells WW.

Turner says the police union will work to help address the Justice Department's concerns, but he says the biggest challenge is the region's broken mental health system that has put police into more contact, and at times conflict, with the mentally ill. The feds' report also portrays the mental-health system as a big factor.

Turner says police training is already changing to deal with the challenge, but that nothing short of a sharp increase in police staffing—he says the city should up the number of officers by 25 percent—will make a meaningful difference.

"We are dealing with people with mental illness more, therefore there are more uses of force," Turner says, adding that officers are "being scrutinized for being in those no-win situations and for not being 100 percent perfect."

Four of the five incidents cited in the report cite police use of stun guns. Take, for example, the naked man repeatedly hit with a Taser.

In May 2010, three officers showed up at an apartment on Southwest 13th Avenue after they received reports of a man screaming inside his apartment. According to police records, the officers found 48-year-old Anthony Charles Caviness unarmed and naked on his floor, screaming for help. 

When he saw the officers, Caviness stood up and ran toward them. Without warning, Officer Joshua Sparks leveled Caviness with a Taser shot, and Caviness fell back to the floor.

At this point the officers should have handcuffed Caviness, the Justice Department report said, but instead they hit him with three more Taser shots of five seconds each. The Justice Department said the threat to the officers was "slight," but their violation of his constitutional rights was "substantial."

The bureau has discouraged officers from firing a Taser more than three times. Reese says he has implemented a new policy that discourages the use of more than one Taser cycle and requires far greater documentation than in the past.

But in November 2010, the city auditor called on police to use Tasers only when a subject was actively resisting arrest or about to harm someone. Such a change would put the Bureau's outdated approach in line with nationally recognized standards. That has not happened.

"They frequently say 'we agree,' and then implement something that is not exactly what the report says," Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, a volunteer organization promoting police accountability, says. "They started making changes while the DOJ investigation was going on. But those are not necessarily the right changes."

John Eck, a University of Cincinnati criminal justice professor, was involved in the oversight of that city's police force when the feds pushed for a 2002 consent decree over use of force and racial bias.

Eck says the independent monitor was crucial in Cincinnati's success in reducing the number of complaints about police use of force.

He says Cincinnati officials had some say in who was named to enforce the decree—but the monitor's independence increased accountability and forced police commanders to become more transparent about how they trained and disciplined officers.

"The Department of Justice will negotiate—whether good, bad or indifferent—and for all practical purposes will walk away," Eck says. "They won't stick around and see the details. They'll be seeing things from 10,000 feet away."

Eck says there's no point for the Justice Department to go through an investigation and then not bring in an independent monitor.

"Somebody has to be able to monitor this, and it needs to be somebody who's paid to do it, who has authority, who can ask tough questions, ask for interviews and do on-site observation," Eck says. "It's a stupid idea not to monitor."

Justice Department reports say one area in which Pittsburgh police saw big improvements with an independent monitor was in a so-called "early warning" system to identify officers who have trouble reining in their use of force. 

That's been a problem here, left to Portland police commanders to oversee. The city auditor has said it took the bureau 18 years to create an early warning system that meets national standards, except in one key area: Supervisors aren't required to track the progress of officers who might pose a problem.

Reese says he's already proven the Police Bureau is being responsive to the Justice Department's concerns. He also did his homework ahead of time, studying what has happened in other cities in hopes of emerging from the investigation with more control than chiefs in other cities have maintained.

The chief says the Bureau has already adopted the Justice Department recommendations on investigating use of force—a change he says the Bureau made in March.

"I said if you see areas where we aren't following best practice, tell us and we will make course corrections," he says. "Anytime we have a use of force now, we are investigating. We are always going to be adapting."

Both candidates for mayor, Hales and Smith, say they want to maintain local control of the police as the city seeks to enact the feds' recommendations.

Smith—who has the endorsement of the police union—says he favors community oversight and cooperation with the police bureau, similar to the current system.

"I think the key thing is that we follow the DOJ recommendations—both the letter and the spirit," Smith says. "I'm hopeful that the proposed [local] oversight committee will provide that.” 

Smith says he doesn't favor an independent monitor but won't resist one if "the Department of Justice suggests that there needs to be not only independent oversight but a federal government dictatorship."

"I just haven't heard the Department of Justice even offering a special monitor—or offering to pay for one," Smith adds.

Hales also doesn't want an outside monitor, saying as mayor he would oversee the Police Bureau and guarantee the feds' recommended reforms would be carried out in the same way he worked to change the Fire Bureau as city commissioner.

Hales says he has no plans to change the Police Bureau's leadership. 

"I'm open to having Chief Reese continue, but there are changes that need to be made," Hales says. "I'm neither presuming that he's incapable of making those changes, nor presuming that it will be easy.” 

WWeek 2015

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