LIKE MANY PEOPLE in Portland, City Commissioner Charlie Hales first became acutely concerned with the attitudes and muscular tactics of the Police Bureau on May Day. With his chief of staff, Hales walked down to Tom McCall Waterfront Park during lunch, and was stunned by what he witnessed. Using batons as battering rams, police slammed protestors to the pavement. It was utter chaos. In all, 21 protestors were arrested and 23 complaints of brutality were filed.
Months later, sitting in his second-floor office at City Hall a few days before Christmas, Hales is still reflecting on the relationship between the community and its police force. "I fear," he says, referring to the mechanics of police accountability, "that we're headed the wrong way in the tug of war for the soul of the Police Bureau."
After his concerns about police tactics were piqued at May Day protests, Hales, a 9-year council member, has watched as a troubling pattern of heavy-handed police tactics have unfolded. After Halloween, he heard complaints that store owners and by-standers were arrested as Critical Mass rode down Hawthorne. This was followed by the now-notorious Chief Mark Kroeker tapes, wherein the police chief reviles homosexuality and condones disciplining children with a canoe paddle.
However, while the primary focus of concern over the Police Bureau has revolved around Chief Kroeker, Hales has turned his attention to a relatively obscure city agency, the Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee (PIIAC). Set up to review complaints from citizens on everything from a disputed traffic ticket to alleged police beatings, PIIAC is meant to be the cornerstone for community-policing in Portland. In other cities, like San Francisco and Minneapolis, review boards serve as powerful tools to keep those cities' police forces in check, going even as far as recommending bureau policy changes. But, even though this institutional mechanism is perhaps the best hope for a kinder and gentler police force, PIIAC, if acknowledged at all, has been simply a passing reference. A mixed bag of 11 volunteer community representatives appointed by City Council members, PIIAC meets each month to consider complaints by citizens. However, unlike boards in most other cities, PIIAC has little power: They can't subpoena testimony from police officers; they can't investigate complaints themselves, and they must rely on what Internal Affairs tells them; ultimately, the police chief has the discretion to ignore their recommendations, a prerogative that the chief has enacted an insulting number of times.
"The current system is not credible," admits Hales. "It doesn't produce behavioral review and it doesn't encourage mediation or problem-solving."In late November, Hales watched in shock as one Police Bureau complaint was introduced in front of City Council. (The City Council sits as the appeal board above PIIAC.) Nearly two years earlier, Larry Mills had complained that a police officer had unduly harassed his teenage son at a local high school basketball game. After talking back to the officer, the son--then a high school senior--had been thrown in jail for four hours. The father complained that the police had overstepped their boundaries. For some 20 months, the complaint dragged through Internal Affairs. Ultimately, Internal Affairs did not even bother to investigate the alleged wrongdoing. In turn, PIIAC approved Internal Affair's review of the case and affirmed that the arresting officer had done nothing wrong. "That case broke my camel's back," says Hales.
Since its inception six years ago, there has been a parade of such cases, where complaints fall on deaf ears and, in effect, the Police Bureau simply shrugs its shoulders. Many believe that PIIAC has acted more like a lapdog than a watchdog. But, all that may be about to change. On January 11, Hales and the other four members of the City Council will convene to consider a complete overhaul of PIIAC. It will be a seminal moment not just for PIIAC, but for the entire concept of police accountability in Portland.
Looking For Justice(In All the Wrong Places)
What was intended as a remedy to wide-spread complaints about the Portland Police Bureau has instead turned into part of the problem. Built to serve as a forum for citizen complaints about police misconduct--a role that has become increasingly pressing as complaints have mounted about racial profiling, militant police tactics, and all-around bullying--PIIAC instead has become a forum where disgruntled citizens huff and puff to no avail.
During the last meeting of PIIAC, the 11 members, joined by two representatives from Internal Affairs, gathered around a large conference table in City Hall. At the head of the table, with his thinning red hair pulled back into a ponytail, Dale began airing his complaint. He tried to explain that the police officer who arrested him lied in his police report and also perjured himself at trial. His words boiled out with an increasingly heated tone. The 11 members of PIIAC sat there calmly. Sgt. Brett Smith, representing Internal Affairs, cocked his head back, his bored eyes fixed on a point on the ceiling.
Eighteen months ago, Dale was pulled over for allegedly failing to keep his vehicle in his lane. When he stepped out of his pickup truck, according to the police report, the officer spotted a double-edged knife on Dale's belt. That discovery led to a full-scale search of Dale's pickup and, in turn, a backpack full of incriminating evidence--an ounce of marijuana, measuring scales, baggies. Ultimately, he was convicted of a felony for trafficking and, because he is now a convicted felon, has since had trouble finding work. Shaking with anger, Dale claimed he will be homeless in two weeks.
Dale said the officer lied about the knife. Even though Dale doesn't dispute he was caught red-handed with drugs, there are still rules by which police must operate; a police officer needs reasonable cause to search a vehicle. It is a textbook argument: If there wasn't a knife visible, the officer had no right to search Dale's pickup. He would be exonerated.
It was a week before Christmas. Pie tins and empty plates sat on the conference table. Until Dale began speaking, the mood in the City Hall conference room had been jovial. Now, except for Dale's heavy breathing, it was silent.
Hastily, the members of PIIAC voted, 11 to zero, unanimously affirming what Internal Affairs reported: That the arresting officer had done nothing wrong. There was no discussion about the curious inconsistency that, according to sworn testimony by the arresting officer, the double-edged knife was found under the driver's seat, not on his body. If true, that would lend credibility to Dale's version of the story.
"As long as there is breath in my body, I won't rest," Dale yelled. "I want him [the arresting officer] in jail."Sitting nearly cheek to jowl with Dale was Charles Ford, the chairman of PIIAC. The room was still. Ford is a kindly, older African-American man appointed by Mayor Vera Katz. He looked at Dale. For a moment, it seems as if he was going to rest a hand on his shaking shoulder. "That's out of our jurisdiction," Ford explained softly.
Though not intentional, Ford's reply is shorthand for all the misgivings and complaints leveled at PIIAC--they cannot really do anything.
There was an uneasy pause before Dale spoke again. "I pretty much expected nothing," Dale huffed. "At least I can't say that you disappointed me."
The Majority vs. The Minority
"They just rubber stamp," says Dan Handelman, referring to the bland reviews of Internal Affairs by PIIAC. Handelman has become somewhat of PIIAC's resident expert. He has attended and videotaped nearly every meeting since the group's commencement in 1994. After witnessing first-hand the Portland police subduing protestors with pepper spray in 1992, Handelman became a member of Cop Watch. It was about the same time that major news stations around the country were playing a murky videotape of a group of L.A. police officers savagely pummeling Rodney King.
In May, Handelman was appointed by Mayor Vera Katz to a work group which gathered to examine PIIAC. Since then, along with representatives from the National Lawyers Guild, Citizens Crime Commission and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)--18 voting members in all--the group has met intermittently to sketch out a blueprint for rebuilding PIIAC. In late October, the group put forward the so-called "Majority Report," a list of 27 recommendations which range from compelling an investigated officer to provide sworn testimony, to giving PIIAC the ability to review cases of in-custody shootings (these reviews are currently beyond PIIAC's scope). All told, the Majority Report demands that PIIAC should receive real power in order to properly investigate the police.
"More than any group, they should operate in the broad sunlight," says one work-group member. "They've been shuttered up way too long."
However, throughout this report is one subtle consistency: Almost every policy recommendation is carried by a vote of 12 in favor and 6 opposed. According to Handelman, those six votes represent former police officers and police union members, also appointed by Mayor Katz to the PIIAC work-group.
This resistance to providing open access to police departments is not uncommon. When a police oversight committee in San Diego tried to implement the power to subpoena witnesses, the Sheriff Association fought the issue all the way to the California Supreme Court (where they lost). Their reasoning is typically generic: Citizens don't understand police work; citizens will interfere; reviewing deaths in custody could jeopardize confidential information.
This contingency of opposing members have also put forward their own set of recommendations, the so-called "Minority Report." When the City Council convenes on January 11, these two reports--the Majority and Minority Reports--will go head-to-head.
Lip Service Central
A self-proclaimed "hippie lawyer," Alan Graf hosts a bi-weekly outspoken radio program on KBOO. One of his favorite targets for tongue lashings is the Police Bureau. Sitting at a downtown coffee shop, he explains how he helped pull the strings that made City Hall finally take action on police accountability.
A little more than a year ago, he received a troubling phone call from a member of the local chapter of the NAACP. Concerned by a startling number of arrests and consistent harassment of African-Americans in Portland, the NAACP wanted a plan of action. Indeed, it was curious: Although African-Americans only account for 4 percent of the city's population, they register more than one-fourth of the 300 complaints filed annually against the Police Bureau.
From the marriage of Graf and the NAACP came an effort last spring to demand that Mayor Katz appoint a work-group to look at PIIAC. (Eventually Graf, Bruce Broussard, a representative from NAACP, as well as State Representative Jo Ann Bowman, who has championed African-American causes, were appointed to the PIIAC work-group when it convened in May.) But, even after Mayor Katz appointed the work-group, there was concern that City Hall would fumble any real changes to PIIAC. There had been a history of such behavior. A little more than two years ago, in two separate cases, City Council overturned PIIAC's approval of Internal Affairs investigations and recommended re-investigations of seeming inconsistencies within police reports. Both times then-Chief Charles Moose rebuffed City Council's recommendations and let the police misconduct go unexamined.
At the time, City Commissioner Erik Sten publicly confronted Chief Moose, telling him that the police had to do their business in the open. Mayor Katz vowed to appoint a task force--but those threatened reforms quickly vanished.
This pattern of apathetic lip service in City Hall has left many advocates uneasy that any suggestions from the current work-group will actually take hold. This inspired Graf, the NAACP, and members of Cop Watch to submit a ballot measure initiative for police accountability. The message to Mayor Katz was clear: If you don't deal with this, we will.
Ultimately, the ballot measure failed to make November's ballot. It was mired down for months as the City Attorney wrestled with advocates for the ballot measure's proper title. By the time the initiative emerged from these squabbles, only seven weeks remained before the July 7 cut-off date for gathering the necessary 20,000 signatures. Even with 300 frantic volunteers fanning across Pioneer Square, the measure fell 1,000 signatures short.
Although these two movements--the PIIAC work-group and the ballot measure for police accountability--started from the same seeds of discontent, and even though they have the same goal, the two have since broken apart; one essentially settled into City Hall, while the other still pounds the pavement.
"Lefty politics," explains Graf, amiably waving his hand across the table to explain the rift.
Just a few days after Christmas, another incarnation of the ballot measure emerged. Championed by Adrienne Ratner and Dave Mazza, PAC-2002 is a re-incarnation of the failed measure; it also apes the essential demands of the Majority Report. Mazza, the editor of The Portland Alliance, recently gained national attention after his stint of diligent investigative work to uncover the audio tape of now-Chief Kroeker railing against homosexuality. Although the ballot measure will not be on their agenda when the City Council convenes on January 11, its presence will almost certainly be another palpable force nudging Council members.
Another Political Hot Potato
In late December, Mayor Katz took the unilateral action to transfer PIIAC from under her control, to sit under the watch of the City Auditor. Although the move is not yet official, Mike Hess, who serves as the chief administer of PIIAC, had already packed his office.
Even though the Majority Report recommended that PIIAC move away from the mayor's office and distance itself from its traditional hand-in-glove relationship with City Hall, the move has left advocates uneasy that City Hall simply may be passing along the hot potato of responsibility to another agency before the crucial City Council meeting. Some expressed concern that the mayor was trying to outmaneuver the work-group and, essentially, wash her hands clean of PIIAC and the City Council's responsibility for overhauling the committee.
"It's really a shame," says Handelman. "It is awkward timing; it undermines the work we did." Handelman worries that the mayor's premature action falls short of the work-group's recommendations. Handelman is also worried that the mayor's action may signal that City Council will make incremental changes instead of considering the whole package of the Majority Report.
But, if City Council does takes the work-group's recommendations on a piecemeal basis and fails to truly move ahead with substantial changes to PIIAC, he is determined that advocates will continue their fight.
"If it has to move again," says Handelman flatly, referring to the PIIAC's move to the City Auditor's office and advocates preference that it moves out of City Hall altogether, "we will move it again."
There will be two sessions in which City Council will listen to testimony about PIIAC. The first, on January 11, will be a forum for the presentations from the PIIAC work-group. The second, on January 17, will be open to public testimony. Both are at City Hall.