TWICE A YEAR since 2011, the Portland Police Bureau quietly posts the work of its Police Review Board (PRB)—the group of civilians, cops, and city officials who weigh the most serious misconduct cases facing officers and then tell the chief, if they agree a cop has done wrong, what should be done about it.
The reports provide a compelling glimpse of the seamy underside of a police bureau with nearly 1,000 cops, and an equally frank look at how city and bureau officials respond to it. Details about police shootings and force cases mingle with accusations of cops driving drunk, hitting strip clubs, inappropriately touching subordinates, acting unprofessionally, or using their on-duty time to shop for personal electronics.
The board and the release of its documents were hailed as key triumphs in a 2010 police accountability push. But the reports, heavily redacted, also have some flaws:
They don't include the names of accused officers. They don't make clear how individual PRB members voted in a case. They also never include what discipline, if any, Chief Mike Reese actually metes out to cops. And that last issue, especially, is causing a minor stir in city hall. The latest batch of reports (PDF) revealed a nearly unanimous decision to fire a commanding officer accused of improperly touching female subordinates, lying, and pulling out his gun in an out-of-state road-rage incident. The Oregonian had previously reported the officer in question had been demoted.
Mary-Beth Baptista, the city's independent police review director, has taken the unusual step of publicly condemning Reese's decision. Her comments appeared in the Oregonian, which reported, a few days before the bureau posted the PRB reports, that former traffic division Captain Todd Wyatt had been bumped down to a lieutenant. And accountability activists are keenly watching whether the war of words leads to greater transparency.
"It's unprecedented," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, who has long demanded that review board hearings be open to the public.
The PRB reports show just one member voted against firing Wyatt—but the person is not identified. The five-member board includes civilians like Baptista, but also police officials—including an accused cop's direct supervisor and an assistant chief.
The board's recommendation was unsparingly forceful—finding Wyatt's biggest problem came in telling the truth about the allegations he faced. Wyatt, besides speaking to internal affairs investigators, also addressed the PRB.
"Some members of the board felt that even a street patrol position was questionable given the gravity of the issues of poor judgment and untruthfulness/untrustworthiness," says the report, which is prepared by the board's nonpartisan facilitator.
Reese's office has declined to release the letter it sent to Wyatt laying out his reasons for a demotion. That demotion was backed by then-Mayor Sam Adams, who also reviewed Wyatt's file and joined the chief at a hearing where Wyatt was allowed to personally plead his case one last time and offer up "mitigating circumstances."
"Individual discipline cases are confidential personnel matters. Neither the chief nor the bureau can comment on cases where an officer receives discipline," Reese's spokesman, Sergeant Pete Simpson, told the Mercury, calling the Police Review Board "only a recommendation and one step in a complex process."
"Chief Reese takes discipline decisions very seriously and conducts a thorough analysis of the investigative materials, meets with the member officer, and discusses proposed discipline with the city attorney's office to make sure that the police bureau is being fair and consistent with past discipline decisions," Simpson continued.
State collective bargaining law, however, allows for officials to release discipline information if there's a compelling public interest. The Mercury has asked the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office to release the letter, arguing Wyatt's case qualifies for a "public interest" exemption. That request joins another from the Oregonian, the DA's office says.
Interestingly, Wyatt wasn't the only officer in the latest reports recommended for termination.
In one 4-1 vote, the board found against a cop accused of lying to his commanding officer after he got caught some 80 blocks outside his assigned district—apparently so he could purchase a TV. Then, in a unanimous vote, the PRB urged Reese to dismiss a cop accused of failing to file a special "use of force" report and then lying to cover his tracks.
Simpson, citing state law, also declined to comment when asked if discipline in those cases also differed from the PRB's recommendation.
Asked about what seemed like the bureau's proactive release of discipline letters in cases involving Captain Mark Kruger (accused of hanging Nazi memorabilia in a park), Officer Ron Frashour (fired for shooting Aaron Campbell in the back), and then-Officer Chris Humphreys (cleared of misconduct after firing a beanbag shotgun at a preteen), Simpson said the bureau likely released information only when ordered by the DA.
"I'm nearly certain," Simpson said, "that in all of them they did."
The DA's office, meanwhile, says it expects to decide on releasing Wyatt's letter as soon as January 23.