Cops Watching Cops 

The Secret Reason Portland’s Rank-and-file Police Union Doesn't Like Our New 911 System: Discipline

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PORTLAND'S MAIN police union has hardly been shy about ripping into the city's five-month-old 911 dispatch system—seizing on early hiccups to declare the controversial system so buggy that it might put officers' and citizens' lives at risk.

But documents obtained by the Mercury this month reveal the Portland Police Association (PPA)—despite its public focus on safety—is quietly just as afraid the system will do something else: give police supervisors yet another tool, via GPS trackers in police cars, to crack down on wayward officers.

And the union has formally asked the city to "vacate" the system, not only until any operational glitches are solved—but also until it promises to explicitly limit how and when tracking could be used against officers. The concern is that supervisors could use GPS data to crack down on cops who routinely aren't where they're supposed to be, or who speed on their way to calls.

"It would seem to me that when they're on duty, and they're using a public vehicle, that should be fair game," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, a strident critic of surveillance when it comes to civilians.

That's not how PPA President Daryl Turner sees things. In a letter to city officials, Turner cites GPS mishaps and worries that the data won't be accurate, prompting "baseless discipline." But even if the system worked flawlessly, that still wouldn't be good enough.

Without a policy limiting use of the data, Turner wrote to the city, "The PPA is left to guess how the city intends to use [the system] for disciplinary purposes."

Curiously, Turner's demands over discipline—contained in a labor-contract grievance filed May 20—had remained hidden until first reported on Blogtown on September 22. In scathing letters sent to city officials who oversee the system, in interviews with the Oregonian and Portland Tribune, and even in an article published in August in his own union's newsletter, the Rap Sheet, Turner never even mentioned the issue. Instead, he has singularly emphasized safety concerns, saying he wants to "fix" the system, not "vacate" it.

Turner, in an interview, confirmed the grievance but wouldn't comment on its specifics because the settlement process is ongoing. Asked why he's been silent on discipline—a complaint that might appear self-serving—Turner said safety has "always been" the union's "number-one concern."

"Our main goal is getting the safety issues fixed," he said. "They are getting some things fixed, but obviously not soon enough."

Safety, especially in the first few weeks after the 911 system went online, really did loom as a major concern. Cops were incorrectly dispatched. The typeface on officers' in-car computers initially was too small and pixelated to read while driving. Coordinates showing an officer's location sometimes failed to refresh.

But city officials say they have worked hard since then to correct glitches, which they cast as a normal part of rolling out a major new system. Tracking data from the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), updated through late August, shows a substantial drop-off in complaints after the first month the system was used. Complaints dropped from 422 in mid-April to mid-May to just 30 in mid-July to mid-August. Of the 562 complaints recorded, about a dozen were still listed as "open."

"It's just decreasing, decreasing," says Laura Wolfe, a spokeswoman for BOEC. In terms of safety complaints from Portland police, "we certainly aren't hearing anything anymore. The dust is settling."

Also curious: City sources who reviewed Turner's letter to the city say many of the problems he cites in detail relate more to cosmetics—colors on maps, for example—than to problems that would actually endanger an officer or citizen. Many have also been fixed.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, whose office oversees BOEC, told the Mercury that she hadn't spoken with Turner about the grievance. But she wouldn't comment on why the PPA was choosing to emphasize safety as a concern even as it formally tied its opposition to discipline concerns.

"I just know the computer works and it works as well as we thought it would," says Fritz. "And we have diligently resolved the glitches. As to why there are multiple complaints, that's not for me to speculate."

Turner, meanwhile, isn't the first police union chief nationally to raise concerns about GPS tracking—nor would Portland be the only bureau that might use the data to keep officers in line. Last year in St. Petersburg, Florida, an officer testified he routinely disabled his in-car computer to keep from being spotted speeding.

In 2008, the Seattle Police Officers' Guild forced Seattle officials to promise not to use GPS data as the "sole basis" for reprimands or discipline. Turner wants that kind of model added to Portland's contract with its police officers.

The subject has even been chewed over by cops on anonymous law enforcement message boards. And not all officers say it's a bad thing. As one Pacific Northwest cop wrote on officer.com: "An honest cop shouldn't worry about what's on the record."

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