KRISTIN MALONE, chair of the citizen board that scrutinizes complaint findings against Portland cops, didn’t mince words.
“I can make this one thing very clear,” Malone, of the city’s Citizen Review Committee (CRC), said Monday night at a “town hall” in a Portland Community College auditorium. “The CRC opposes, in the strongest terms, any change to the process that decreases transparency and public access to the complaint and appeal process.”
Malone was addressing Mayor Charlie Hales and three city commissioners, who are scheduled to vote September 7 on a plan to merge the CRC with the Portland Police Bureau’s secretive Police Review Board (PRB) to create a drastically different police oversight system—one without the flawed-yet-public complaint appeal system currently in place.
The plan—a product of closed-door focus groups with city council earlier this year, publicly revealed to the CRC last month—is being lauded by city attorneys and other officials as a way to speed up the process, bringing it in line with a US Department of Justice-based 180-day timeline for resolving complaints against police officers.
“The current system, as it is, barely functions,” said Constantin Severe, director of the city auditor’s Independent Police Review (IPR), at a meeting with the CRC and city attorneys last Thursday. There’s a backlog of complaint appeals, and not enough time for the citizen committee to hear them at monthly or semimonthly appeal hearings. “The position that the auditor’s office has is that the current system has to change.”
But the new plan is being panned by most members of the CRC and the public for its lack of transparency, and for a potential “chilling effect” they say could tamp down complaints and honest deliberations. After all, under the proposed system, meetings would include uniformed and armed cops on the board, and potentially take place in a police bureau building. The plan, Malone suggested Monday, could cause more problems than it is intended to solve.
“It is a complicated process that we’re part of—it’s a fraught process, an often dissatisfying process for all involved,” said CRC member Julie Falk. “But I think the best and most important aspect of the process is that it is public, and that should be preserved at all costs.”
Today, the PRB is made up of five voting members: someone from the community, the IPR director or a designee, the commander or captain of the officer who’s the subject of a complaint, a “peer” of that officer from within the bureau, and an assistant chief. After a complaint against a cop is investigated, the board votes on whether the officer violated bureau policy and, if so, recommends discipline to the police chief. If the complainant doesn’t like the outcome of the PRB’s ruling, they can appeal it to the CRC, which then holds a public hearing to determine whether the PRB’s decision could have been made by a “reasonable person.”
Lots of interesting things can crop up in CRC meetings. For instance, in 2014 an aggrieved mother, Latoya Harris, recounted to the committee how cops had arrested her nine-year-old daughter, clad only in a swimsuit, and hauled her from the family home in handcuffs. The story made national news after the Mercury reported it, and led to new police bureau policy. It’s unlikely that would have happened with the proposed changes in effect.
The new “consolidated” board that’s being considered would meet more often, but away from members of the public and media, with the outcome of police oversight cases summarized in vague, twice-yearly reports that the PRB already issues. One rotating CRC member and one other community member would join the other five members of the PRB to deal with police complaints. There’d be no appeals, public or otherwise, though the entire board would have a say on police shootings and in-custody deaths, which the CRC can’t touch now.
“The DOJ says we must complete our investigations, from intake to proposed discipline, in 180 days,” explained Senior Deputy City Attorney Ellen Osoinach at a meeting with the CRC about the new plan last Thursday. “Speedy resolution of cases is a hallmark of procedural justice for complaints as well as the officers.”
The meetings would be off limits to the public, Chief Deputy City Attorney Mark Amberg explained, because of collective bargaining laws with the police union, and an Oregon law that he said prohibited board discussions from being publicized.
“The basic rule of that statute is that information about an investigation of a public safety officer that does not result in discipline can’t be released,” said Amberg on Thursday, explaining that there is a “public interest” exception to this rule.
“When you’re at the PRB, obviously there hasn’t been a discipline decision that has been made yet, so that statute applies to that stage of the process.”
On Monday, Malone criticized city attorneys for not more thoroughly vetting that statute and exploring potential ways the “public interest” exception could be applied to make the new board public.
- CRC Chair Kristin Malone, at podium, addresses Steve Novick, Dan Saltzman, Mayor Charlie Hales, and Amanda Fritz
- Doug Brown
“We are dealing with a proposal that is poorly understood, even by its drafters, and that is therefore hardly clear to us,” she said, as Hales and three of four city commissioners (Nick Fish wasn’t there) listened and took notes, preparing for next month’s hearing.
More than a dozen community members took the microphone at the meeting in order to criticize the proposed plan, many saying it violates their trust.
“The public component to this CRC process,” said former CRC member TJ Browning, “the openness of this process, as messy as it is—no more messy than anything else in a democratic system—produces valuable information.”
“Police reviewing themselves is unacceptable to the public,” said Dr. LeRoy Haynes, chair of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform. “We must ask the question, does it move us forward?”