A COUPLE of weeks ago, and a day after I'd gotten Mayor Charlie Hales' office involved, the Portland Police Bureau officially denied what seemed like a pretty straightforward records request.
I'd asked for freshly updated data showing how often discipline decisions by Police Chief Mike Reese veer from the recommendations of the bureau's Police Review Board. But the bureau—even though it had given me a spreadsheet bearing the same kind of data back in February—politely but firmly said "no" after several days of hemming and hawing.
For a bureau that likes to use the word "transparency," the denial was a cautious, by-the-book reading of state records laws, which allow exemptions in discipline cases and don't go nearly far enough in encouraging public agencies to produce or turn over documents.
(I wrote up a lengthy examination of the bureau's reasoning in a July 26 post on Blogtown, "Police Chief: Sorry, But We Won't Update the Discipline Data We Already Gave You.")
The denial also comes with a cost to the public good.
Why? Because the data is valuable. It's a gaping window into the police bureau's discipline process and how well the chief respects the work of a board that's supposed to provide a civilian check on punishment and training. My reporting found that while Reese typically agrees with the board's findings, he also saved the jobs of three cops overwhelmingly targeted for dismissal on accusations of dishonesty. He also went easier on other cops facing strict discipline, including Sergeant Kyle Nice, caught up in an off-duty road rage case.
But now—finally—here comes the cavalry.
After months of making noises about changing city code to force the release of the data I'd been seeking—lifting the discussion above the whims and caprices of how and when officials might invoke the safe havens in our public records law—the city's Independent Police Review is looking to move something this fall.
Constantin Severe, IPR director, announced a handful of planned tweaks to the city's accountability system last week. The list includes requirements that future Police Review Board reports lay out the chief's final discipline and also include an explanation whenever that discipline differs from the board's recommendation.
"We need to attempt in our city to try for a more transparent process," Severe says. "Not just say we're transparent, open, and accountable—which are nice words—but actually try to engage in some of that."
Severe says he expects to have a vote from the city council, maybe by October, and is cautiously optimistic his changes will pass. Hales' office has already told me it supports tracking discipline information.
But there may be challenges, from the bureau's brass and also from the Portland Police Association.
Severe's tweaks also include creating a flowchart for measuring proposed officer discipline. And he wants to give his IPR investigators the explicit power to question cops without going through the bureau's internal affairs division. Severe calls that current arrangement "absurd" and a roadblock in front of IPR's goal of finally conducting more of its own independent inquiries.
"When you have this closed circuit, where the public doesn't see what's going on," Severe says, "we have a less useful system."