Let's Fix the Portland Police Bureau! 

Changing the Cop Culture that Led to the Death of Aaron Campbell

ON TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 23, a week after Reverend Jesse Jackson left Portland, Police Chief Rosie Sizer was wrapping up her appearance on Oregon Public Broadcasting's (OPB) Think Out Loud. The chief said she'd continue to work "incrementally" on improving the community's relationship with the police, following her officer's fatal shooting of Aaron Campbell—a distraught, possibly suicidal black man shot in the back by a police sniper on January 29.

"I think people are in search of magic, the one thing that is going to change everything," Sizer said. "And I don't think it's one thing, I think it's lots of little things."

Whether the community is in search of "magic" is unclear—but Portlanders remain outraged over Campbell's death. A day after the chief's radio appearance, a group of 50 people carpooled down to Salem to meet with legislators and talk about the incident. Reverend Renee Ward, who led the group, is campaigning for changes in the law to prevent the further "murder" of young men like Campbell, she says.

"'Campbell's Law' will protect an unarmed black man that poses no threat to anyone else, and is more or less 'murdered,' as we have coined it," Ward says. "We don't call it an accident, a shooting, or a wrongful death—not even negligent homicide. What happened to Aaron was straight-up murder. There was no reason for him to be taken out like that."

Reverend Ward says it's too early to talk about the specifics around Campbell's Law.

The next day, a quiet meeting took place at the Allen Temple church in Northeast Portland. Led by Reverend Doctor Leroy Haynes, vice president of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, it was an opportunity for a formidable and diverse group of interests to discuss a collective advocacy strategy around the Campbell crisis. In the room there were representatives from: Basic Rights Oregon, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon, Portland Copwatch, Urban League of Portland, Portland's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Lawyers Guild, Mental Health Association of Portland, and even Al Sharpton's National Action Network.

This new group, the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, expects to grow its membership further and announce its plans at a press conference on March 5.

"I think we decided to convene, like, 13 committees, from fundraising to logistics to legislative policy to event planning," says former state legislator Jo Ann Bowman, who was also in the room in her role as executive director of Oregon Action. "But I think the Albina Ministerial Alliance has done a really good job of coming up with some basic 'asks' for changing the policies within the police bureau."

So what might these "basic asks" be? Well, there are a few very obvious steps that could be taken to reform the Portland Police Bureau.

CHANGING THE LAW AROUND OFFICER SHOOTINGS

"The game is rigged," said Bishop A. A. Wells from Emmanuel Temple Church, at a rally on the Multnomah County Justice Center steps on February 17. "The way the law is written, there's no law that the grand jury can use to indict an officer in a shooting like this."

Currently under state law, an officer is entitled to shoot a suspect if he or she "reasonably believes" that the suspect poses an "immediate threat." That's a far lower standard than the probable cause an officer needs in order to make an arrest. Even a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge got involved in this debate on Wednesday, February 24.

"So far, law... [gives] law enforcement full rein to interpret deadly force limits," wrote Judge Michael Marcus in a personal letter to Chief Sizer.

Instead, Marcus wrote, the law should be changed so that officers are told more explicitly when they "should be expected to accept risk to avoid unnecessary deployment of deadly force," or even withdraw from a situation completely so that other workers—for example mental health outreach workers—can step in. The law should also include some allowances for mental illness and the suspect's "ability to hear, understand, or comply with commands," Marcus wrote.

Sizer told OPB that officers frequently assume more risk than they need to by law, to diffuse difficult situations. But she said she's "not willing to go there," when it comes to defining those risks more explicitly, because she didn't want to write a policy that could lead to an officer getting killed on the job.

"I think the question is: Are you willing to assume responsibility for the decision if an officer dies?" she said.

"I think it's a very thoughtful letter," responds District Attorney Mike Schrunk, whose office convened the grand jury over Campbell's death. "Judge Marcus is a good thinker. He's one of those people—you may not agree with what he says, but his letter is worth taking seriously."

ENFORCING THE "SNOWBALL RULE" MORE STRICTLY

Officer Ryan Lewton could not explain to the grand jury why he decided to fire a beanbag round at Campbell when Campbell was standing outside his apartment with his hands on his head ["Curiouser and Curiouser," News, Feb 25]. Indeed, if not for Lewton's beanbag round, it is very likely that Campbell would never have been fatally shot. It was the beanbag that made Campbell suddenly run for cover.

While the media has mainly focused on Officer Ronald Frashour (the officer who fatally shot Campbell), it is extremely unlikely that Officer Lewton will be disciplined as harshly—even though it appears his beanbag shot is what led to Campbell's death.

Chief Sizer's use-of-force policies were changed in 2008 to require an officer to use the minimum level of force necessary to accomplish a task. Officers are also encouraged to consider the way their approach to a situation can influence whether force becomes necessary, under the so-called "snowball rule." In other words, it's important that a police officer doesn't do anything that would precipitate use of force.

In 2009, the city paid out $20,000 to Kamichia Riddle, who had a gun pointed at her by off-duty East Precinct Officer Kevin Wolf‚ who thought she was stealing construction materials from a lot next door to his home in Silverton in 2006. The police bureau initially found in favor of Wolf's use of force, but the Citizen Review Committee reversed the decision in 2009, thanks to the snowball rule.

"The [Citizen Review Committee] found that by not calling 911 and putting himself in the position where he pulled the gun, the officer violated the policy," says Dan Handelman, an activist with Portland Copwatch.

Still, many feel that the bureau needs to be stricter with its officers when they do make mistakes that snowball into negative outcomes. In 2009, Chief Sizer moved to suspend Sergeant Kyle Nice for just two weeks, because he failed to transport James Chasse Jr.—a man with schizophrenia who was beaten unconscious in his struggle with police—to a hospital in 2006. Chasse subsequently died in custody ["Terminal Energy," News, July 9, 2009].

"Two weeks off for the officers is not the justice James Chasse deserves," says Jason Renaud with the Mental Health Association of Portland. "Trust and confidence in patrol officers evaporated, and political opportunities for positive change dried up. A chief must be able to measure community expectations for discipline, [and] have policy tools and political savvy to hold the reins."

SUSPENDING OFFICERS UNTIL INVESTIGATIONS ARE COMPLETE

"They should have suspended Officer Ron Frashour until the investigation is completed," says Joe Walsh, a protester otherwise known as "the lone vet," who has been protesting Campbell's death outside city hall for the last two weeks.

"It's not good enough to assign him to a desk job—they should say, 'We're assigning you to your living room,'" he continues, saying that the cost of keeping an officer on paid leave is minimal compared to the cost of paying out on repeated lawsuits for rogue officers.

Whether Lewton and other officers on the scene of Campbell's death should also be suspended is up for discussion, but the community's trust would certainly improve if officers involved in the death of community members were suspended until their actions have been thoroughly investigated.

Officer Frashour, who shot Campbell, went back to work the morning after Reverend Jackson's visit—prompting outrage from the community and a confrontation between Mayor Sam Adams and over 100 protesters at city hall ["Mayor Adams Comes Face to Face with Campbell's Mother," Blogtown, Feb 17].

"What message does that send?" asked a protester.

Mayor Sam Adams has allegedly asked Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman to reassess these policies ["Campbell Shooting: Adams, Saltzman Call for Civil Rights Probe," Blogtown, Feb 19].

BUYING THE COPS NEW RADIOS

City Commissioner Randy Leonard is outraged that the police bureau appears not to have learned from the shooting of Raymond Gwerder in 2005 ["Damage Control," News, Nov 15, 2007]. According to Leonard, Chief Sizer had assured him that a single commander on the same radio frequency would take charge of hostage situations in the future. Gwerder, like Campbell, was shot in the back while complying with a hostage negotiator.

"You issue a directive that any police officer shall be on the same radio frequency as the incident commander—period," says Leonard.

And buy them all new radios, if necessary, he adds.

ENCOURAGING OFFICERS TO LIVE IN PORTLAND

For a city that pioneered "live/work space" for its creative class, Portland is doing a lousy job of encouraging its police officers to do the same—live and work in the same city.

Campbell's girlfriend, Adrienne Jones, told the grand jury that her neighbors on NE Sandy kept to themselves. The night before he was shot, Campbell fired a shot in the air after threatening to kill himself—so why didn't Jones call the police?

"Because I knew if I called the police when it was just me, him, and the kids then it could have turned out the same way as it turned out on Friday," said Jones.

But would things have been different, if Jones had known and trusted a police officer living nearby?

Chief Sizer told OPB listeners last week that a "small minority" of Portland police officers lives in Portland.

"Given the stresses of the job, many members choose to live away from their work," she said. "I have known police officers who have been threatened in the grocery store... [and] as housing prices have increased in the city, it's often a case of 'you can buy more house if you're willing to tolerate a longer commute.'"

There's no reason, however, why the city shouldn't emulate Emanuel Hospital, which in the early 1990s offered low-interest home loans to its employees who were willing to live near the hospital in NE Portland.

"I'd say that police officers are fairly good credit risks for the city," says Renaud, who has suggested the idea to local government.

Even District Attorney Schrunk tells new employees that he "strongly encourages" them to live in Multnomah County, where they work.

"If you apply here, you get it in writing," he says. "That we strongly encourage our district attorneys to live in Multnomah County. The idea is that you're going to take more care of the community if you live in the community. Your kids go to the schools—you care more."

RECRUITING THE BEST OFFICERS

Chief Sizer says the ideal cop has high integrity and a good sense of humor, while at the same time being caring and compassionate. But there are continuing problems with recruiting such officers, it seems.

Officers are speculating as to whether incident commander Sergeant Liani Reyna may have avoided calling the bureau's Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) to the scene of the Campbell shooting, after losing a six-year sex discrimination suit against SERT in 2008.

Reyna, who quit SERT in 2000 after being the first woman officer to join in 1999, alleged that the team caused a sexually hostile work environment with its rituals, such as the following chant: "Rah, SERT team! Where every man's a tiger, a big fucking tiger, a big fucking tiger with a dick this big!"

The Oregonian also reported on "a form of discipline in which SERT members would force an officer to the ground while another officer would sit naked on the officer's face," before describing Reyna's lawsuit as a "moral victory" in 2005.

Last year, the chief went to Salem to ask for the right to use polygraph tests on applicants to the bureau, after six cops were kicked off the force in three years for sexual misconduct. But the ACLU of Oregon lobbied successfully against the move.

"We're completely against it," says David Fidanque, the ACLU of Oregon's executive director. "There's a reason that polygraphs are inadmissible in court, because they're not reliable. An innocent person will look guilty as hell, while a pathological liar can get away with murder. Yeah, sure, there are some bad apples who get through the screening at the front end, but most of the problem happens on the job."

Instead, some suggest gender parity training might be a way to get male police officers to drop their macho hostility.

Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman has also been meeting with would-be minority recruits over the last week—Saltzman said on February 19 that he was "troubled" by the fact that minority applicants to the bureau were now refusing the city's offers to join the police force in the wake of the Campbell incident.

"We need to continue to reach out and to heal," he said. "We want a police force that looks more like the city."

Two weeks ago, Reverend Jackson criticized the lack of ethnic diversity in the command structure of the bureau. It's also worth remembering that former Mayor Tom Potter demoted African American Police Chief Derrick Foxworth, over some steamy emails to a desk clerk. Jo Ann Bowman criticized the move at the time, and fell out with Potter—a long-time friend—after speculating about the demotion being racially motivated.

The bureau also needs to consider how racial profiling may be part of the policies surrounding gang prevention. Defense attorney Chris O'Connor, whose clients often include alleged victims of the policy, cites HEAT, a North/Northeast Portland gang prevention team, as an example.

"Officers are assigned to just go around and stop every young black man that they can find to search him," he says.

CHANGING THE POLICE BUREAU CULTURE

"It's not just about Officer Frashour, it's about a whole culture," says Reverend Ward. "It's about the fact that in representing the law, you think you're above the law, and there's no accountability to the public. You go from being a public servant to being a public tyrant—and what happens when Officer Friendly isn't so friendly anymore?"

Almost everyone agrees that robust citizen oversight of the police bureau is a good way to achieve increased policy and culture change. Giving the Independent Police Review subpoena power would be a way to compel officers' testimony, says Handelman with Portland Copwatch.

But other culture changes are needed, too. For example, despite an environment riddled with emotional pitfalls, stress is still institutionally stigmatized in the police bureau.

"If an officer needs to use the employee assistance program, he currently has to tell his sergeant—and I think it should be absolutely confidential," says Jesse Cornett, who is running against Police Commissioner Saltzman in May's election.

Others would like to see less posturing on both sides. For example, Central Precinct Sergeant Chris Davis wrote an article entitled "Restoring Sanity in the Portland Police Bureau" in this month's union paper, Rap Sheet, in which he called for "everyone to step back, take a deep breath, and start a rational discussion about how we can reverse the damage and get on with our core mission, which is to reduce crime and the fear of crime in the community."

Portland Police Association President Scott Westerman has also been adopting a more conciliatory tone since Reverend Jackson's visit. Above all, his message now seems to be that community trust in the police cuts both ways.

"We're an adaptable, intelligent group of people," he says, of the union rank and file. "When bad things happen, and the bureau changes policy, we can adapt. But that's what we're not getting from the leadership: Tell us what you want us to do. Don't throw us under the bus."

mdavis@portlandmercury.com

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