PORTLAND'S INDEPENDENT POLICE REVIEW (IPR) is a city-employed watchdog group with a serious job: taking citizen complaints about police misconduct and passing the most severe cases on to the police bureau. Sometimes, the bureau investigates—but many complaints never make it that far.
The police deal with 20 percent of all complaints as "Service Improvement Opportunities," which require little more than an exchange of emails between an officer, their supervisor, and the complainant.
Critics like Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch call this "the dirty fork" decision: It's about as effective as complaining about the flatware in a restaurant.
The decision to treat a case as a service complaint rather than an investigation is a judgment call made by IPR Director Mary-Beth Baptista and two assistant directors. Some allegations—discrimination, for example—can go either way.
City council heard a study of IPR methods relating to discrimination complaints on Wednesday, June 2. Ten allegations of racial profiling or discrimination were closed as service complaints in 2009. In contrast, only one allegation of bias in the past eight years led to the investigation and discipline of an officer, says Handelman.
For an example of how a complaint works through the system, look to the story of Stoop Nilsson. In March 2009, Nilsson says, she and a friend saw two police officers yelling at a black man for jaywalking in Old Town. When the women tried to intervene, Nilsson says the officers harassed them, pushed Nilsson's friend, and refused to give her a business card as required by law. Later, both officers failed to appear in court.
Six months later, Nilsson filed a number of allegations with IPR. After a dismissal for untimely filing that Nilsson appealed, Baptista dismissed the allegations involving the two other people because they hadn't filed their own reports.
Baptista issued service complaints for the officers' failure to issue business cards and to show up in court. But Nilsson wanted an investigation.
"We don't have any set criteria for deciding whether to investigate," says Baptista. "It depends. If we have an officer who had, for example, three discrimination service complaints in a short period of time, we'd say, 'No more service complaints.'"
Eleven months after her incident, Nilsson received an email response from the sergeant overseeing Brian Sims, one of the officers involved.
"Officer Sims is now a detective in my unit," wrote Sergeant Rich Austria. "I believe by discussing and addressing these issues with Detective Sims he understands how conflicts like this can be avoided."
Nilsson, a local homeless advocate, admits that she was testing the limits of the complaint system. "I wanted to push the process to see where the leaks were."