Rosie Sizer was sworn in as Portland's top cop last July—and her first six months have been anything but easy.
Apart from having to defend the police bureau over September's controversial death-in-custody of James Philip Chasse, Sizer has opposed the cops' union position on racial profiling, borne the burden of Derrick Foxworth suing the city (who she replaced after he was caught sending steamy emails), and continues to have to work with, what many in the community call, a faulty complaints process.
Despite these issues, there is almost universal agreement on Sizer's strong performance through a difficult period in the police bureau's history—making it that much harder for Portland's press to generate punny headlines using her last name.
"Since her appointment, Chief Sizer has done an excellent job in running the Portland Police Bureau," says Mayor Tom Potter, who as police commissioner would hardly tell us if she was doing a crappy job. "She has initiated several long overdue organizational changes necessary to make the bureau more efficient, transparent, and community-oriented."
In other words, she gets a pat on the back from the boss. Still, as top cop, Sizer faces close media scrutiny, particularly when it comes to the biggest community-relations issue of her first half year, the James Chasse case. The Mercury checked in with Sizer—as well as her critics and champions—on that issue and several others.
THE CHASSE CASE
When James Chasse died on September 17, the police bureau was subjected to intense, continuing media attention until the two cops (and a sheriff's deputy) involved were cleared of criminal liability a month later, on October 17. Even then, some said the grand jury process was and is biased in favor of the cops, and photographs of the officers involved were posted in the streets. This prompted Sizer to fight back in an Oregonian editorial published on October 25, in which she stated she was against trying them "in the court of public opinion."
Dan Handelman of activist group Portland Copwatch says he is concerned Sizer may have "prematurely absolved" the officers involved in Chasse's death ("Death in Custody," News, Sept 28) by talking about their actions as "unintentional" in her editorial.
"She may have distracted the public from the ongoing internal investigation into their actions by encouraging people to focus on the bigger picture," he says.
Sizer is frank in her response to criticism over the bureau's presentation of the "facts" in the case, saying she would have liked to give the public more information sooner. Of her Oregonian editorial, she says, "I never intended it to be an excuse or a cop-out, but I think the big picture does matter, and if you talk to people in the mental health community, they say there are more people in crisis on the street, and there is a greater likelihood those folks are going to intersect with police officers."
Indeed, many in the mental health community—including Jason Renaud at Portland's Mental Health Association—are pleased with Sizer's handling of the fallout from Chasse's death. With an extra $500,000 from the mayor's office to fund crisis intervention training (CIT) for all officers, Renaud says Sizer's decision to install former Southeast Precinct Commander Sara Westbrook as the new head of CIT is the right one.
"Rosie has great potential," says Renaud. "She's a thoughtful person who understands politics and process—but so far she's just been putting out fires. The next six months will answer the big questions: Can she recruit better officers? Can she get her force CIT certified in one year as promised?"
On racial profiling—the other major community issue of Sizer's first six months—there is praise for her decision to proceed with community listening sessions about the touchy subject, despite the Portland Police Association's (PPA) prior refusal to participate.
"I'm sure it made cops nervous that she was so committed," says Oregon Action Associate Director Jo Ann Bowman, who helped organize the sessions, and will now co-chair the mayor's racial profiling committee with Sizer when it first convenes at the end of January. "From the beginning, she did not evade the issue or use neutral rhetoric. She set the pace."
PPA head Robert King has recently announced he will participate in the committee ("About Face," News, Jan 4), but Sizer says she did not feel left out on a limb by his initial refusal.
"I don't think my role is to represent the union," she says. "I don't control their decisions, and so in the first iteration, I think we chose to take different routes, but that's not necessarily all that surprising."
King, for his part, has nothing but praise for the chief, calling her "genuinely fair and reasonable," and describing her as "the right person at the right time, with the right set of qualities."
The next six months will bring increased pressure for the committee to deliver, and on Sizer, as its co-chair, to get all her officers to engage in the debate.
When something does go wrong, community activism groups continue to push Sizer to advocate for a more transparent complaints process. Alejandro Queral at the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center criticizes the Independent Police Review (IPR) for continuing to use the cops' own investigators—not independent attorneys as happens in some other US cities—to look into complaints ("By the Numbers," News, Nov 30; "Bad Review," News, Nov 23).
"I think Rosie recognizes that a more transparent oversight system would be in her interests," says Queral. "It needs to be efficient and more responsive to the community's needs, and there has to be a sense that discipline is imposed. Right now, we don't have that system."
On Wednesday, January 10, the IPR and City Auditor Gary Blackmer faced criticism from Copwatch for trying to "sneak" through a report on cop shootings by sharing it with the community only an hour before it was due to go before city council. The council hearing was eventually delayed by two weeks, leaving Sizer to side step the bureaucratic shit-storm that followed.
The IPR has been resistant to any suggestions that it needs to change its way of doing things, with Director Leslie Stevens telling the Mercury in November, "In Portland it is unfortunate that a few vocal folks continue beating the same tired drum. The IPR and the CRC [Citizens Review Committee] do good work—we have one of the best systems in the country."
Sizer is diplomatic—the IPR is under Blackmer's control at city hall, and not hers, but there is a suggestion she is personally receptive to criticism of the way things are.
"I think for each individual, the story is somewhat different," she says. "I think the system works better now than it has ever worked in my history in the police bureau. However, if there is a concern, then we should at least listen, and to hear what the concern is, and if there are ways to remedy some of it, then we should consider them."
FOXWORTH'S LEGACY AND PERSONNEL ISSUES
When Sizer took power, she promoted Foxworth back up to commander of the Southeast Precinct—after he was demoted to captain by the mayor—saying she did not want to split the bureau into a "Derrick camp and a Rosie camp." Despite Foxworth's subsequent decision to sue the city over his demotion, Sizer is insistent this has not affected her leadership or divided the bureau, as she publicly feared.
"I think you can take out that issue," she says. "That's essentially between the city and the mayor and human resources and Derrick, and just move it aside and work well at a professional level."
The outcome of Foxworth's lawsuit, however, could jeopardize that balance.
Sizer is also looking at the potential burst of a retirement bubble that could strip the force of many of its most experienced officers over the next few years. With 100 officers becoming eligible for retirement in 2007, and the bureau only able to hire around 60 officers a year, Sizer needs to work fast on budget proposals to recruit more staff.
"The bureau is significantly understaffed," says Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese, many of whose 70 street officers had to work overtime last summer. Central is authorized to have 98 street officers, but faces a recruitment struggle.
"During critical times, like last summer, it was difficult even with overtime to meet the community's needs," he says.
"We are behind in our recruiting efforts," Sizer admits. "And I think if you talk to chiefs within the region, recruitment for public safety positions is a huge issue, and so we're all concerned about it."
One possible solution, floated on Tuesday, January 9, would be to close North Precinct, in the increasingly gentrified St. Johns neighborhood—sharing officers and command staff with more over-stretched precincts, particularly the Northeast Precinct. Sizer faces some tough decisions here.
"We are looking at the budget vigorously," she says. "But we are trying to look at this collaboratively with the community."
9 TO 5? FORGET IT...
These are not the only issues to have dogged Sizer's first six months as chief: She's had her work/life balance—something publicly stated as a personal priority—ruined by the arrival of 50 anti-brutality protesters at her home on a Sunday afternoon. Later, after saying publicly "the Portland Police Bureau deals well with gender," she had to sack one of her officers in November after he asked women for a peek at their underwear during traffic stops. Meanwhile, Oregon State Senator Avel Gordly is planning upcoming legislative proposals that may eventually require the bureau to take more care of its officers' mental health if they kill someone on the job.
"I think it's a long struggle," says retired Officer Tom Mack, who is known for his frankness about the bureau's approach to "community policing," when asked to describe the task Sizer has on her hands. "But Rosie's probably the best person in the bureau to right the ship, and I have high hopes for her."
Sizer, personally, is most pleased with changing what she describes as the bureau's "tone." When asked to describe in more detail what this means, she says: "The tone has to do with what I say, how I say it, when I say it, what actions I take. I could say, 'It's the tattoo policy' [Sizer announced she'd allow new recruits to sport tattoos shortly after officially taking charge in July], but that's only part of it."
Perhaps the truest test of Chief Sizer's leadership is yet to come—to convert the bureau's new "tone" into an atmosphere in Portland where the majority of people trust and respect the police.
"I see all this Taser stuff in the newspaper," says Mack, "and I think, this is a long way from community policing. I still see a continued circling of the wagons when it comes to bad behavior, and we're still not training our officers to engage people who don't want to talk to us."
Who knows if Sizer, or anyone, has the capacity to make true community policing happen—and it will take an effort by the community, too—but she appears to have made an encouraging start by engaging in the discussion, rather than walking away or publicly ignoring the bureau's problems.
Six months down... and many more challenges to come.