THE LATEST BATTLE over strengthening police accountability in Portland—where cops have drawn the ire of the feds for being too quick to use excessive force, and then too slow to investigate why—is finally about to go public.
This Wednesday, October 16, the city's Independent Police Review Division (IPR) is expected to unveil a long-promised package of proposals meant to give it explicit new powers to directly investigate cops—while also forcing the Portland Police Bureau to better explain how and why it punishes (or doesn't) officers whose conduct has been found lacking.
In some cases, the policy changes would reflect what's become a tacit practice. Despite rules that say only police can directly interview other cops—technically, an IPR investigator must ask an internal affairs investigator in the same room to repeat questions to an officer—the bureau has been casually letting that slide.
In others, the changes would require some major shifts in how the bureau works. For the first time, the bureau would have to tell citizens when a police chief's discipline veers from the recommendation of the bureau's citizen-populated Police Review Board (PRB). The chief would also have to explain his decision to depart from the PRB to the police commissioner. And public reports on review board hearings involving police shootings and in-custody deaths would need to name the officers and the victims.
"This excessive secrecy and making things up ad hoc, it hurts the effort at holding people accountable," says Constantin Severe, appointed as IPR's director this summer after serving, for years, as the office's top deputy. "It's important that the public can access what we do, and the same thing goes for officers. How do you hold officers accountable if the rules just change?"
But those proposals, which go before Portland City Council on October 23, are hardly a sure thing.
Severe has the staunch backing of his boss, City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, and he's been pressing his case in city hall—meeting with city commissioners and Mayor Charlie Hales.
Severe also has been telegraphing his intentions for months, meeting with cops and community groups. He's been champing at the bit to unleash his newly beefed-up team of investigators—breaking ground this summer by announcing an independent investigation of Captain Mark Kruger, infamous for his shrine to Nazi-era German soldiers.
The reforms would codify the most ambitious expansion of IPR's powers since 2010, when then-Commissioner Randy Leonard pushed through code changes that created the current Police Review Board. Severe feels especially empowered by US Department of Justice findings last year blasting the city's oversight mechanisms as tepid, complicated, and slow.
But it's hardly a secret that the contours of Severe's proposals are causing some angst in Chief Mike Reese's office—and also in the Portland Police Association (PPA), the union that represents the bureau's nearly 1,000 rank-and-file cops.
"We've gotten some negative feedback from folks within the city," was all Severe would grant when pressed about what that criticism entailed.
Hesitation likely surrounds a small part of what Severe is pitching: (1) letting IPR investigators compel testimony from cops, something investigators in the Portland Bureau of Human Resources already can do, (2) the creation of what Severe is calling a "discipline guideline"—a formal flowchart matching examples of misconduct to standardized, expected consequences, and (3) naming cops in public reports on shootings and in-custody deaths.
But most of the officials presumably pushing back behind closed doors are keeping quiet in public. So far.
As of press time Tuesday, October 15, Reese's office had not responded to a detailed list of questions asking about Severe's proposals. Reese's boss, Hales, the city's police commissioner, also declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Hales said the mayor's office was still sorting through its official feelings in internal discussions—discussions presumably complicated by the upcoming resignation of Hales' police liaison, Baruti Artharee.
Only Daryl Turner, president of the PPA, was willing to say anything substantial. Turner took pains to say he was reviewing the proposals and planning to meet with Severe—but he also nodded to the PPA's contract with the city and how it might affect his thinking.
"Anything to do with the disciplinary process is a mandatory subject of bargaining," he told the Mercury when asked about the code changes, particularly the proposal giving IPR investigators the power to directly interview cops.
During the last round of code changes, when Leonard and Griffin-Valade created the Police Review Board, the PPA filed a formal grievance that put the boards on hold until contract talks wrapped up months later.
Other changes would flow directly from last year's findings by the US Department of Justice. Even though those findings won't become official until next year, Severe wants to push ahead with a federally mandated 180-day timeline for inquiries.
And, he says, recent scandals in the bureau have him looking to close a couple of loopholes. He wants IPR to have sway over civilian police bureau managers, not just sworn cops. He also says internal affairs should report directly to the chief.
Both of those were issues when Mike Kuykendall, the bureau’s former director of services and internal affairs overseer, was caught up in a text-messaging scandal involving an internal affairs harassment probe of Kruger. Kuykendall, until he resigned, was in charge of a probe that involved him as a player. And because he wasn’t a cop, he was out of IPR’s reach.
Kuykendall’s successor, Assistant Chief Eric Hendricks, also was caught up in the Kruger scandal. After Kruger was cleared of harassment, he posted the city letter saying so on his office door. That move launched a retaliation probe by human resources. But Hendricks, who also has retired, waved off a separate internal affairs investigation, in favor of a conversation.
Severe understands that his proposals might be making some cops uncomfortable. But he also unflinchingly sees them as "common sense."
"Every one of them deserves to be heard by the council," he says. "We're not recreating the wheel. They're things to make our system work better.”