ARIZONA CONSULTANT Eileen Luna-Firebaugh finally presented her critical report on the city's Independent Police Review (IPR) to council last Wednesday, March 19—but it appears to have done little to bridge the divide between critics and proponents of the way police oversight is conducted in Portland.
The IPR currently dismisses 68 percent of the roughly 700 complaints it receives per year without making an investigation, and without giving citizens a right to appeal the rejection, according to numbers from the IPR's most recent annual report. On average between 2005 and 2006, 110 complaints per year are classified as "service complaints," which carry very little risk of discipline for the officers involved. Furthermore, there is a very low sustained rate for complaints: IPR only sustained 0.7 percent (or five) of all its cases in 2005, and 2.7 percent (or 18) of all its cases in 2006.
"In Portland, 12 percent of cases were judged to have insufficient evidence to back them up, which generally speaking is lower than an average of 33 percent in at least five other US cities," says Dan Handelman of activist group Portland Copwatch. "This means Portland's IPR is not weighing the officer's word and the citizen's word equally."
Luna-Firebaugh thinks the system could be working better, and wants the IPR's Citizen Review Committee (CRC) to have more power to direct the city auditor and the IPR in the way it handles complaints.
Her top recommendation is for the mayor's office to come up with a set of criteria for when citizens' complaints should be independently investigated, instead of investigated by the cops' own internal affairs division. The idea is to improve the community's trust in the outcome of complaints, especially when there's a controversial complaint, or excessive force is alleged.
Luna-Firebaugh also wants the CRC to hear appeals from citizens whose complaints are rejected without an investigation, and for the CRC members to receive better training in how to do their jobs.
"No one should be thrown into this sea without learning first how to swim," she told council. "I believe in the community directing the role of government. It doesn't just think about it, it doesn't just comment on it. It directs it."
Council isn't necessarily in disagreement with any of the report's findings, but it will delay forming an action plan until after another work session on the report, and until the mayor and City Auditor Gary Blackmer have had time to come up with their own recommendations.
The problem is, the mayor and Blackmer are at loggerheads over whether the IPR is currently doing a good job, and whether any of Luna-Firebaugh's recommendations really make sense.
At a council work session before the report was presented last Tuesday, March 18, Potter drew attention to a drop in Portlanders' satisfaction with police services from 70 percent to 64 percent between 2001 and 2007, according to the auditor's own "Service Efforts and Accomplishments" survey.
Blackmer hit back, asking: "So I'm responsible for that?"
At last Wednesday's hearing, police union boss Robert King said the role Luna-Firebaugh has played is "disappointing, divisive, and unnecessary." He said she had made mistakes in basic math (he did not note specific examples), and made no efforts to appear impartial in her report.
Council accepted the report unanimously, and will now debate what changes to make to the IPR, if any, over the coming months. But Luna-Firebaugh's $60,000 report may well achieve nothing, if the mayor can't get Blackmer to see his point of view before he leaves office.