STUNG, BUT NOT SURPRISED, by a state board's order that he reinstate the cop who fatally shot the unarmed and distraught Aaron Campbell in 2010, Mayor Sam Adams stood alone in Portland City Hall this week and asked his fellow commissioners to back a costly court appeal with an uncertain chance of victory.
Adams, his voice crackling with emotion, issued his plea at a press conference on Monday, September 24. It came mere hours after the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB) published a ruling that said the city had no right to ignore a state arbitrator's decision clearing Ron Frashour of misconduct when he shot Campbell in the back. ["Fire Frashour? Done." News, Nov. 18, 2010]
"It is the city council, it is the police commissioner, it is the chief of police, that manage the bureau," Adams said. "Not the labor unions and their connected institutions."
The mayor had refused to honor the arbitrator's decision this spring, arguing that Frashour's reinstatement after a history of questionable calls using deadly force would violate "public policy." And he cited a little-tested 17-year-old state labor law to make his case. The Portland Police Association (PPA), which has lobbed increasingly ugly broadsides at Adams over his defiance, appealed the mayor's refusal to the ERB.
But whether Adams will persuade at least two of his colleagues to join him in a challenge to the Oregon Court of Appeals remains very uncertain. Most city commissioners said they hadn't yet digested the ERB's ruling or had time to huddle with the city attorney—and circumspection is running high. Nick Fish, for one, said he wants to ensure the city has a "plausible legal strategy."
Adams is giving them up to 30 days—the window ERB gave the city to reinstate Frashour, with back pay—before holding a public vote.
So far, only one commissioner has firmly lined up behind the mayor: Randy Leonard, Adams' political BFF. Leonard's support, announced Tuesday, September 25, came at the end of a second highly emotional day that included a vocal protest by accountability groups on the steps of city hall and another round of anti-Adams attacks by PPA President Daryl Turner.
Ironically, it was Turner and his latest jabs that pushed a skeptical Leonard off the fence—where he found himself immediately following the ruling—and into Adams' corner. Turner, at a press conference filmed by the Oregonian, accused the mayor of waging a "personal vendetta" and "showing the questionable integrity that he's had all during his tenure."
"Really, Mr. Turner?" Leonard asked in an outraged statement. "How do you characterize the integrity of your members' actions that led to a complete breakdown of all the training the Portland Police Bureau provides officers to avoid tragedies such as the indefensible killing of Aaron Campbell?" ["Saving Us From Ourselves," News, Sept 20]
"And I don't mean just the lack of integrity by the officer that pulled the trigger that killed Mr. Campbell," Leonard continued.
"I include the supervisors and negotiators on the scene that ignored the incident command system that led to a breakdown of the left hand not telling the right hand what it was doing."
The question Adams is asking his colleagues boils down to this: Shouldn't the mayor be able to fire a Portland cop for the improper use of deadly force?
"That's what we're fighting for here," Adams said.
But the ERB tossed that question aside. It relied entirely on the arbitrator's decision, seizing on a key distinction raised by the PPA: It wasn't that Frashour made a mistake and was punished too severely, it was that he didn't do anything wrong at all.
"There is no need for any further analysis by this board once the arbitrator determines that the grievant did not engage in misconduct," the ruling said.
City Attorney James Van Dyke plainly said he thought the ERB's fundamental approach to the case was wrong and said a court challenge on those grounds would be a first in Oregon. The city claims the law it cited—SB 750—was specifically crafted in the early 1990s as an antidote to an arbitrator smacking the city over a deadly force case involving Officer Douglas Erickson.
So far, the city has spent close to $1 million on in-house and outside lawyers keeping Frashour out of uniform—a cost some critics, including the PPA, have decried during a time of budget cuts. Adams said it's an investment.
"It is totally worth it, and Portlanders expect us to do this."