The Spank Heard 'Round Portland 

Randy Leonard Takes on Police Oversight

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IN A CITY that often prizes process over outcomes, Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard is by no means considered perfect. He's been a champion of a secret police list program that has drawn comparisons to the Gestapo, been accused of trying to create his own water bureau militia by arming security guards, and has even drawn constitutional lawsuits by aggressively pursuing "problem" businesses with his so-called HIT Squad.

Still, Leonard's latest effort to strengthen the city's Independent Police Review (IPR)—which comes before council on Thursday afternoon, March 18—is likely to further strengthen his reputation as a populist dealmaker with a keen ear for the Rose City zeitgeist.

"Think about the difference in this community about police relations since last October," says IPR Director Mary-Beth Baptista. "There has been a significant deterioration over the last few months."

Indeed, calls for stronger police oversight have reached a climax in Portland ever since Officer Christopher Humphreys shot a 12-year-old girl with a "less-lethal" beanbag shotgun last fall. Humphreys was suspended by Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman, and then reinstated following a march on city hall by the police union ["A Line in the Sand," News, Nov 26, 2009].

At the time, Leonard described Saltzman as a "parrot for the police chief." Chief Rosie Sizer had wanted to wait until an investigation into Humphreys' actions was complete before proposing discipline. But Humphreys was also the key officer involved in the death in police custody of James Chasse Jr., a man with schizophrenia, back in 2006. An investigation into that incident took three years to complete, resulting in suggested discipline for Humphreys of just two weeks off—prompting cries from community groups that rogue officers are being allowed to act out with impunity.

Then on January 29, Officer Ron Frashour shot Aaron Campbell in the back. Campbell was an unarmed and suicidal African American man. Last fall, Chief Sizer herself had testified against Officer Frashour in a federal court case accusing him of excessive force. Nevertheless, Frashour went back to work the day after Reverend Jesse Jackson came to town in February and called Campbell's death "an execution," cueing further public outrage.

"Right now is a very difficult time in our community," said IPR's Citizen Review Committee Chair Michael Bigham, introducing a meeting to hear community concerns about the police at Portland State University on Sunday, March 14. "People are hurt, they feel angry and confused. They want changes in how the police do business."

The biggest change proposed by Commissioner Leonard, in partnership with the IPR and City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, is to create a new five-member police review board inside the police bureau. The board will include the IPR and a citizen appointed by the auditor as voting members. Leonard also wants to ensure that there's a 12-month limit on investigations into officer misconduct, and grant the IPR subpoena power so that it can compel testimony in its investigations.

"For example, we had a case the other day where Project Respond [the county service that interfaces between police and people with mental health problems] wouldn't talk to us," says IPR's Baptista. "American Medical Response [the ambulance company involved in Chasse's death] is also notoriously difficult to get information from. And there's a reality to that—without a subpoena, they don't have to talk to us."

Leonard's changes are hardly sweeping. There's no suggestion of drug and steroid testing for officers, ongoing psychological assessment, or new incentives for officers to live in Portland—three suggestions mentioned repeatedly at Sunday's hearing.

"But we're not working in a vacuum, either," says Baptista. "The union negotiations are going on right now, and if the community really wants annual performance review, drug testing, [and] encouraging police officers to live in the city, then they have to continue to put the pressure on those negotiations."

Those negotiations started in the dark and cavernous Portland Building on SW 4th on Friday, March 12, with the police union objecting to the city's stance that members of the public should be able to sit in and watch. The city says that in theory, the public can sit in, but no one has ever asked before. Meanwhile, the union says the city is playing politics.

"We're in a difficult situation here because, of course, we're not alone in the room," said union attorney Will Aitchison. "We have all sorts of people who are in the room with no stake in our bargaining process."

The issue of whether the public indeed has an interest in those negotiations and can sit in on them has been referred to the state's Employment Review Board, giving Leonard at least a few more weeks to get his reforms passed.

Meanwhile, City Commissioner Amanda Fritz plans to ask for a delay until April on Leonard's emergency ordinance vote, which was scheduled for Thursday. Fritz wants the public to have time to review and weigh in on the proposals.

"Public involvement and transparency in decision-making are two of my core values," she wrote in a statement on her website.

Not for Leonard, of course.

"Every minute that this strengthened oversight proposal is not in place is another minute too long," says Leonard's chief of staff, Ty Kovatch.

Then again, when it comes to spanking the Portland Police Bureau, some feel Fritz's delay will simply allow Leonard time to posture more loudly. Some wonder what value Fritz's own posturing about "public process" really has, in the greater scheme of things.

"The IPR has been toothless since it was launched in 2001," says Jason Renaud with the Mental Health Association of Portland—an outspoken advocate for police reform. "Another month of dawdling and vote trading by city commissioners provides the same police accountability as they've provided for their tenure."

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