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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Skeptics Sound Off at Public Airing of Feds' Deal with Portland Police

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Nov 1, 2012 at 6:18 PM

The panel, from left: Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, Tom Steenson, Dr. LeRoy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, and Becky Straus of the ACLU.
  • Photographs by Denis C. Theriault
  • The panel, from left: Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, Tom Steenson, Dr. LeRoy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, and Becky Straus of the ACLU.
Portland city commissioners this afternoon endured their first public, detailed airing of the settlement Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese struck with the feds over our cops' unconstitutional treatment of the mentally ill—including an earful from advocates and skeptics who loudly complained the package of reforms doesn't go far enough and or hold enough of the community's voice.

As such, Adams promised, the deal won't be final for at least two more weeks. At the end of the three-hour hearing, he said he'd be "keeping the record open" for more letters and phone calls. City commissioners could then request changes to the deal based on that feedback, and those amendments would be heard and voted on at another hearing next Thursday afternoon.

A vote on the final settlement package—provided the federal Department of Justice signs off on whatever the council sends back without any tweaks of its own, could come as soon as November 15. That changes would be sought by the council was telegraphed both by Commissioners Randy Leonard and Nick Fish, who asked about the timeframe and mechanism for fixes.

"I'd ask the city council get to my office amendments and changes based on the testimony and feedback we've heard," Adams said.

And they sure did hear a lot of it. Among the biggest concerns raised by groups like the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, theAmerican Civil Liberties Union of Oregon (pdf), the League of Women Voters (pdf), Portland Copwatch, National Alliance on Mental Illness and others were a lack of transparency in the creation of the deal, loopholes in the tighter use of force policies put forward, and a lack of accountability.

They repeatedly—and stridently—urged the city council to wait before saying yes.

"This agreement needs to be re-looked at, renegotiated, and it needs to come back with teeth, with the grip of authority to hold accountable the police bureau," said Dr. T. Allen Bethel of the AMA, who argued the deal only "reinforces things already in place." "What you have done so far is not acceptable. It is not good for our community... If we had included the community from the beginning, perhaps those of us who are here saying 'redo' would be here saying 'thumbs up.'"

Tom Steenson, a longtime civil rights attorney who won millions in settlements from the city in the high-profile police deaths of James Chasse Jr. and Aaron Campbell, said he spent hours providing his thoughts to the feds on "best practices" and was dismayed to see so little of that effort reflected in the agreement. He also was shocked to learn, during the hearing, that the feds have put a gag on city officials that prevents them from discussing the details of their negotiations.

"All of us in the community are at a loss," he said. "We're not a third party to the agreement. We were not involved in the negotiations. We don't know whether the DOJ said those were bad ideas or whether the city said 'we're just not going to do that.' We don't know what happened to what we think was a lot of effort."

Fred Bryant, right, tells the council its unfair hes not allowed to appeal the shooting of his son, Keaton Otis.
  • Fred Bryant, right, tells the council it's "unfair" he's not allowed to appeal the shooting of his son, Keaton Otis.
The council also heard from Fred Bryant, whose son Keaton Otis was killed in May 2010 in what police said was a shootout after gang detectives pulled Otis over for driving a nice car and wearing a hoodie. Otis had been suffering with mental illness at the time.

Bryant has pushed for months, as we've reported, for a chance to appeal the Police Review Board finding that cleared the officers who killed Otis. The city's Independent Police Review Division refused his request in a letter sent to Bryant's attorney this fall, saying only non-deadly-force cases legally qualify for appeals. The feds had mentioned that gray area in their findings in September but didn't fix it in their agreement with the city.

"If it's wrong, fix it. Bottom line," Bryant testified. "Let's not twist all up and try to make things better for one person than another person."

Speakers also argued a series of other fine points.

• A proposed policy change to limit the use of Tasers—only one Taser and one Taser cycle against one person at a time, and no longer against the mentally ill—still technically allows the weapon to be used against people passively resisting the cops.

• There are concerns the Community Police Relations Committee, which would be subsumed by a new 15-member oversight board, will lose its longtime work helping ease racial bias in the bureau and racial tensions with members of the community. (Adams promised he wouldn't let that happen.)

• Police Review Board hearings remain closed to the public—even to the person who may have been wronged in a misconduct case—but not the officer who's been accused.

• Advisory committees working with the cops on training changes and on mental health crisis training and response ought to specifically include survivors and family members personally familiar with mental illness—not just academics and experts.

• There won't be enough time or resources to conclude appeals of misconduct cases in the 21 days spelled out in the settlement.

• Because Adams has yet to ask council how to fund the $5 million-plus in annual ongoing costs associated with the deal, advocates also worry that finding money for the agreement will sap funding from other social services already working to limit the exposure people in crisis have to police.

• The compliance officer/community liaison in charge of making sure the city does what it promised doesn't have the power of a court-appointed monitor—someone who could make direct and immediate changes without having to run between the city and the feds. (Fish seemed interested in exploring this—asking for examples of other cities that have monitors; two of them include Seattle and New Orleans.)

"This is your opportunity for true community consensus on the use of force policy and to achieve a true lasting change in the way the public safety system engages the community," said the ACLU's Becky Straus "It's our grave concern the agreement does not reflect that.... There's no independent monitor. There's not enough accountability to ensure that what's mandated will ever be actualized."

The hearing did help clarify other lingering questions in how the deal will be interpreted and enforced. City Attorney James Van Dyke said the language in whatever is approved, not off hand conversations or anyone's informally stated intentions, will be the law.

Deputy City Attorney David Woboril, who specializes in police training and use of force issues, spent several minutes alongside Chief Reese discussing the implications of changes to the city's overall use of force policy, which would remain, like its old one, stricter than the Constitution in what kinds of force are allowed and when.

In what Woboril described as a first for the nation, our cops will be trained to evaluate a confrontation and choose—among a range of reasonable options for force—the option that either requires no force or the least amount possible. And in another shift, they'll be judged more on their decision making than the actual amount of force they wind up using.

"We'll never be able to determine the least amount of force possible," Woboril says. "That's been a conundrum for law enforcement all across the country. You can ask the oficer to articulate their tinking and evaluate the quality of the choices they made given the information available. The officer's thinking needs to be in pursuit of the goal of using lower levels of force and avoiding force altogether."

Adams hopes to have most of the ideas for changes in hand by Tuesday, so he can run them past the feds and then get them back to his colleagues in time to have them ready by Thursday's hearing.

Dr. James Kahan, a volunteer on the bureau's crisis training advisory council and critic of the Campbell shooting, said he was glad the federal probe got Reese and others listening to suggestions "we've been making... on the advisory board for years."

"There are enough people who have an honest stake who have not been heard," he said.

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