There were just seven people in the audience at a meeting of the Citizens Review Committee (CRC)—the group that hears appeals and monitors the work of the Independent Police Review (IPR)—on Tuesday, November 21. And two of them were there to take the committee to task for not drawing a larger crowd.
Jason Dahl and Shauna Curphey of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center (NWCRC) think poor turnouts at the CRC's meetings reflect the failure of the police complaint process to gain the community's trust. They told the CRC that more work needs to be done to create an effective police oversight system in Portland.
"As independent community volunteers, you are an essential component to ensuring that police in our city uphold those rights that are so precious to all," Dahl told the committee, meeting at the Albina Youth Opportunity School on N Mississippi. "Unfortunately, citizens must go through a long and confusing process before they appear before you to appeal a complaint."
Dahl's perspective is drawn from the numbers: In 2005, the IPR says it received 771 complaints, with 31 cases eligible for appeal after an investigation by the cops' Internal Affairs Division. Of those, just three citizens chose to file appeals.
Based on the CRC's appeal verdict in one case, the police bureau agreed to change its findings—from exonerating an officer for use of force, to finding "insufficient evidence" for it. The other two appeals were unsuccessful, in one case because a witness refused to cooperate, and in the other, because the CRC felt the case did not warrant a full hearing.
Dahl isn't the only one who's pointed out problems with the complaint process: In March, CRC member Gwenn Baldwin resigned after an appeal was not upheld by the CRC ["Critical Review," News, March 30]. Baldwin cited concerns that the CRC is not able to do its job because it is too dependent on the IPR.
The NWCRC is also gathering evidence that suggests citizens don't bother to file complaints in the first place, because they do not trust IPR to take them seriously.
"There is a fear among community members that officers won't be disciplined for their misconduct," Dahl told the committee.
In March, City Commissioner Erik Sten told the Mercury he wanted the city council to take a "real public look at what's working and what's not working," where the CRC is concerned. But Mayor Tom Potter is responsible for raising police issues in his dual role as police commissioner, and he has yet to take the lead on the complaint system issues. The commissioners may be unlikely to burn up goodwill with Potter by pressuring him on the issue.
The CRC itself is keen to hear more from dissatisfied customers—Chairman Hank Miggins asked Dahl if he could attend the NWCRC's community outreach functions, while another CRC member, Marcella Red Thunder said, "This is great work, I'm just wondering what happens next."
Meanwhile, the NWCRC's criticism has drawn a sharp response from IPR Director Leslie Stevens.
"I've been biting my tongue for a long time," she told the Mercury. "But in Portland it is unfortunate that a few vocal folks continue beating the same tired drum. The IPR and the CRC do good work—we have one of the best systems in the country.
"One of the continual gripes is that we do not do our own investigations," she says—the NWCRC has been critical of the IPR's habit of outsourcing its investigations to the Internal Affairs Division, staffed by police detectives. "But in those cases where I have not thought the bureau has done a thorough enough job, I have pushed back and the police have been very responsive. I think Portlanders have a police review process they can be proud of."
"If that is the response, let's look at the numbers," counters Alejandro Queral, NWCRC's executive director. "Fifty-three percent of complainants were dissatisfied with the way their complaint was handled in 2004—how can you say this is a process we can be proud of?"