There are potentially big changes coming to Portland's police oversight process next month. But, at least for now, the system won't be sealed off from public scrutiny as many had feared.
Portland's City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero—who oversees the city's Independent Police Review (IPR)—today released a number of proposed code changes she's asking Portland City Council to approve in a meeting September 14 (see here and here).
Those changes would cut off often-strident community input at appeals hearings held by the IPR's Citizen Review Committee (you may recall an incident where someone got doused with water during one-such hearing?). And they'd also, in no uncertain terms, require the police bureau to alert IPR when there's evidence a Portland Police Bureau (PPB) member has "engaged in conduct that may be subject to criminal and/or administrative investigation"). That's a tweak pretty squarely aimed at the fact that the PPB didn't think to alert IPR when it learned former Chief Larry O'Dea had shot a man while camping.
What the code amendments won't do is fundamentally change the system by which complaints against police are weighed. As we reported earlier this month, city officials have toyed with the idea of partly merging the functions of the five-member Police Review Board, which considers serious complaints against officers, and the CRC, which hears citizen appeals when complaints don't result in discipline.
Such a merger would have potentially taken away those appeals, and ensured all deliberations over disciplining cops for bad behavior happened behind closed doors. Officials argued, though, that it would have been able to speed up the discipline process—one goal of a settlement the city reached with the US Department of Justice.
But there's no hint of that so-called "consolidated review board" in the changes released today. IPR Director Constantin Severe says that's because city attorneys are still looking into the legality and specifics behind that scheme.
"From my understanding it's under review to see how feasibly we could do that," Severe tells the Mercury.
That's not to say there aren't big changes being proposed. In recent months—between the O'Dea incident and increasingly vociferous outcry by the public at CRC meetings—the police oversight system has struggled to function as designed. Among the changes to the system council will consider next month:
•Splitting the 11-member CRC into three-person panels that can hear appeals cases. Right now, the full CRC takes up those cases, but often finds it doesn't have time to handle them all at monthly or twice-monthly meetings. Severe says splitting the body into panels that meet independently (still in public) will help it take on much more of the workload.
•Axing public comment periods from those discipline appeal hearings. In April, cops and the Independent Police Review got into a standoff of sorts, after one CRC member was doused with water at a hearing. Cops refused to show up at the following CRC meeting, until their safety could be guaranteed. By removing any opportunity for audience members to provide input at those hearings, IPR argues the process will be more smooth and fair (because community members won't be urging the CRC to recommend discipline). "It has to be a fair process if we want a system of real accountability," Severe says. Don't expect this recommendation to be a hit with the folks who attend these meetings. IPR already stopped giving audience members food.
•Forcing the police bureau to alert IPR when it has reason to suspect one of its members has broken the law and/or rules. Again, this is pretty squarely aimed at the fact PPB kept the O'Dea shooting so close to the vest. Severe wouldn't say that outright, noting that the shooting is still under investigation.
•In a move that feels like it should have been made ages ago, people who complain about cops might FINALLY get a chance to plead their case to the Police Review Board. Right now, cops who are complained about are able to speak to the board, but the folks who feel wronged are only represented by written statements. "It’s really powerful to hear from an individual themselves as opposed to hearing from a cold, dead record," Severe says.
•Requiring that far more complaints about cops are investigated. Right now, if IPR receives a complaint about a cop, but learns while gathering information that it's unlikely to result in discipline, it'll often dismiss the case, Severe says. The new changes would ensure far more get a full investigations, though there would be some exceptions.
•Scrapping the process of allowing a cop's commanding officer to type of findings of an investigation into that cop's conduct. Instead, either IPR or the police bureau's Internal Affairs Division will type of the findings, depending on which investigated the complaint.
If they're approved by council, these changes represent the third large-scale tweak of the city's police review process in the last six years. Other large changes occurred in 2010—in the wake of the killings of Aaron Campbell and James Chasse— and 2013.