Jason Sturgill

“Please don’t be too nice” to criminal suspects, President Donald Trump said at a rally full of laughing and cheering police officers late last month, essentially endorsing excessive use of force by law enforcement.

The president’s comments, and his audience’s gleeful response, led to something of a public relations nightmare for police departments trying to shed the bad reputations and perceptions of brutality that have led to community distrust.

“To suggest that police officers apply any standard in the use of force other than what is reasonable and necessary is irresponsible, unprofessional, and sends the wrong message to law enforcement as well as the public,” said New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

The Gainesville Police Department chimed in, saying: “The President of the United States has no business endorsing or condoning cops being rough with arrestees and suggesting that we should slam their heads onto the car while putting them in.”

A July 29 tweet from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) following Trump’s comments even made CNN. “Portland Police Bureau officers are expected to treat everyone with dignity & respect, even when they are a suspect,” it read.

Four days later, at a sparsely attended meeting of the city’s Citizen Review Committee (CRC), a PPB lieutenant said that it’s within bureau policy for officers to punch suspects in the face if police think they’re being noncompliant during an arrest.

Lt. Craig Morgan was at the meeting to explain why he cleared a subordinate officer of wrongdoing, after that officer admitted to punching a restrained bank robbery suspect multiple times in the face during an arrest in November 2015.

Phillip Nelson, then 46, had just robbed a US Bank branch on Southeast Division. After a brief foot chase—cops tracked him via a GPS transmitter attached to the nearly $3,000 he left with—Nelson fell, and an officer jumped on top of him. Two more cops swarmed in, pinning Nelson to the ground, face down, with their knees. They grabbed his right hand to cuff him, but couldn’t reach his left arm, which was underneath his body. Officers said the area was too wet to safely use a Taser (Nelson apparently knocked over a bucket of water). The blows commenced.

“There was so much weight on me that they were trying to pull my left arm out and they kept punching me in the face and they were kneeing me in the side repeatedly,” Nelson told investigators from the PPB Internal Affairs Division (IAD). “I couldn’t pull my arm out and they couldn’t pull my arm out.”

The officer, who was not identified publicly per police discipline rules, admitted to investigators that he punched Nelson in the face multiple times. He said he thought the man was intentionally resisting.

Nelson filed a tort claim notice with the city a few months later, alleging a host of injuries he says were caused by police. That triggered an investigation by the city auditor’s Independent Police Review (IPR), which handed off the case to internal affairs. Morgan, the officer’s superior, ruled the use-of-force allegation as “not sustained,” meaning the officer’s actions were allowed.

It’s not that Nelson lied about being punched in the face, Morgan said in his justification of the determination. It’s that face-punching is within policy when cops think a suspect is resisting. A punch, Morgan said, “can cause them to focus their mental energies on that area,” so that the suspect will, essentially, give up.

“Punching a suspect is allowed under certain circumstances,” Morgan told the CRC. “Punching a suspect who is resisting and displaying other behaviors is on the range of acceptable behaviors.”

The CRC, which is overseen by the IPR, rules on whether discipline decisions (or the lack thereof) by the PPB could have been made by a “reasonable” person. The civilian board last Wednesday ruled 5-3 to challenge Morgan’s finding. The majority felt the allegation should be “not sustained” as Morgan ruled, but with an added debriefing—essentially, no punishment or record of wrongdoing, but with a formal talking-to about how the situation could have been handled better.

Under normal circumstances, the police chief can either accept or challenge the CRC’s decision to add a debriefing. If challenged, the CRC can either back down or take it to Portland City Council for final say. Chief Mike Marshman, who will be formally replaced as police chief by Oakland Deputy Chief Danielle Outlaw in the coming months [see pg. 8], is on vacation and has yet to announce an official retirement date. Assistant Chief Chris Uehara is serving as interim chief until Outlaw starts this fall.

Nelson, for his part, wasn’t able to make it to the CRC hearing last Wednesday. In January, he was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison for the bank robbery.