When the feds came into town last week to tell us something many observers long suspected—that the Portland Police Bureau unconstitutionally uses excessive force against the mentally ill—Chief Mike Reese stood alongside the coterie of officials announcing the findings and insisted there was "no daylight" between himself and the Justice Department in making a host of substantive changes.
He also released a lengthy public statement after the press conference, echoing that conciliatory tone. It says, in part:
The situations we are talking about today are complex and difficult for officers to resolve. There are no easy answers or guaranteed outcomes. Thoughtful people can respectfully disagree with the legal conclusions. I strongly agree that this bureau and our community can improve the way we serve and protect Portland's most vulnerable populations. That's why, as the DOJ has collaboratively provided us with recommendations during their investigation, this bureau has already implemented changes in the way we investigate use of force...
But that's not precisely the tone he took with his own police officers. In a version of that message sent just as the press conference last Thursday was starting—meant to be seen internally, and not publicly—Reese worded things just a wee bit differently. He made sure to note that he personally disagreed with the findings. That version of the statement was helpfully posted by the Portland Police Association, alongside its own statement.
The situations we are talking about today are complex and difficult for officers to resolve. There are no easy answers or guaranteed outcomes. While I disagree with the Department of Justice's findings, I strongly agree that this bureau and our community can improve the way we serve and protect Portland's most vulnerable populations. That's why, as the DOJ has collaboratively provided us with recommendations during their investigation, this bureau has already implemented changes in the way we investigate use of force...
It seems like a small change, but it's not. Reese has a difficult job politically, trying to straddle to do sometimes incompatible jobs: leading a bureau of rank-and-file cops and a (perhaps calcified) command staff, while also answering to his own boss who has his own agenda, Mayor Sam Adams. It's possible Reese was calibrating his remarks so each audience would get more of what they wanted to hear.
Reese spokesman Lieutenant Robert King acknowledged that, indeed, the chief wrote both versions, with the "I disagree" version sent out early and internally. King said the chief, after his remarks at the press conference and before the statement was released widely, then "went back and adjusted it to what he actually said."
But King minimized the notion that it even matters whether Reese disagrees with the legal finding (yes, he still does, despite what he wrote, King confirmed)—suggesting no police chief in the country would ever agree that his or her officers violate the constitution. The feds' he said, don't care whether Reese or other chiefs agree. "The DOJ is looking at our response," King says, which was to "lean wholeheartedly" into finally making changes that have been demanded within Portland for decades.
Asked why then—if the chief agrees we can do better—it took a court order and 14 months of federal investigators looking over our shoulders to start making it happen, King basically brushed that off. He didn't have a good response, other than to redirect blame (somewhat deservedly) at our broken mental health system.
"At the end of the day," he said, "we're probably not going to get into parsing out what we agree with and don't agree with."