Time to Take the Wheel 

Sam Adams' Job as Police Commissioner Has Finally Begun

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WHEN MAYOR SAM ADAMS seized the job of police commissioner from Dan Saltzman this spring, hoping to quell outrage over a string of fatal police shootings, he said all the right things.

Chiefly, he vowed to rebuild a city's shattered trust, calling it unacceptable that citizens were left to bond over "the fear of their own police force."

As words, they were welcome. But after serving just five months as commissioner, Adams has had little chance to put them into practice—avoiding some of the thorniest issues that have captured the community's ire, like labor talks and officer discipline. That, however, is starting to change.

Union negotiations, seen as the most important battleground for oversight issues, finally resumed Friday, September 17. And discipline for the officers involved in the death of Aaron Campbell this year is moving forward, awaiting the mayor's final approval next month. In addition, a citizen's report on how best to toughen the review boards that weigh in whenever cops use force has been submitted to the city council.

In each instance, Adams' stamp will be vital to setting the tone of the city's response. And that means the next few months are shaping up as a crucial test for the police commissioner—and whether he can stand the heat that some say led him not to take the job in the first place.

"He's a reluctant commissioner," says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland. "There's a big difference from being the commissioner and actually doing the job."

Adams' spokesman, Roy Kaufmann, brushes off that criticism. He said the mayor has years of experience with police issues after serving as chief of staff for ex-Mayor Vera Katz and that, more importantly, he's in tandem with his handpicked chief, Mike Reese.

"Every step the police bureau takes [under Reese and Adams], in terms of policy, procedure, and organizational culture, they're all rooted in the rebuilding of trust between the community and its law enforcement professionals," says Kaufmann.

Adams did step up and face reporters seeking answers about a pair of police reviews last Wednesday, September 15. He approved Reese's reported decision to fire Officer Ron Frashour, the officer who shot Campbell in January with an assault rifle, but also sided with Reese's ruling that the controversial beanbagging of a 12-year-old girl last fall was within policy.

But his absence was noted a few days later when city negotiators squared off against the Portland Police Association over contract terms for the first time in six months.

—all while protesters under the banner "Fire Frashour" gathered outside to demand an end to arbitration for officers fired for shooting citizens.

Meetings had been put on hold amid the city's insistence that the talks be made public, and they resumed only after a compromise that will leave about half the meetings closed to the public, with strict limits placed on observers' conduct. No audio or video recording is allowed, and neither is live blogging. Laptops and cellphones, like on an airplane about to land, must remain stowed.

For three hours, the sides ripped through an occasionally numbing list of demands—and didn't come close to finishing. While union officials asked for the moon (saying that face-time with the community costs money, and railing against suspensions), city officials focused mostly on budget issues, like trimming comp time. The only major issue discussed was a plan to remove badge-and-gun privileges from cops whose conduct is under review.

Kaufmann said other issues, like where officers live, would not be on the table. Adams will push, however, for performance reviews and is open to discussing drug testing. But will Adams push for those changes in person?

Not likely, Kaufmann says. Adams receives regular updates but prefers to let his negotiators do the talking.

"It's critically important that there is participation by the mayor and the chief of police and an actual presence in these negotiations," says the Rev. LeRoy Haynes, chairman of the Albina Minsterial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform. "What comes out is going to set the tone."

Of course, negotiations for the union's contract, which expired in June, may drag on for months. Ironically, their outcome is crucial to the fate of a citizens oversight report completed last Thursday, September 16, after four months of meetings with city and police union officials.

Recommendations include giving more power to a Citizen Review Committee that weighs in on use-of-force incidents. Its members would be able to force officers to testify and vet complaints before internal investigations begin.

Adams' staffers were among those voting on the recommendations and participating in meetings. One cop watcher and former state representative, Jo Ann Bowman, called on Adams' office to push hard for accountability, no matter the political price.

"The city gave away the shop a long time ago," she says, "and now they're having a hard time reining [the union] in. But they need to. What I'm not hearing is 'When are we going to have some higher standards?'"

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