Will They Ever Learn? 

Report on Cop Shooting Investigations Finds "Room for Improvement"

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THE DAY AFTER the city released an outside analysis of seven police shootings since 2004—a report that raised significant concerns about the Portland Police Bureau's ability to learn from its mistakes—the bureau's official response didn't inspire much confidence.

Instead of acknowledging the basic theme of the report—that "there is still room for improvement" in how the bureau trains its officers to avoid shootings, and then in how it analyzes shootings when they inevitably happen—Chief Mike Reese's office sent out a news release with a congratulatory headline.

It said, simply, "PPB Superior." And it was an attempt to spin attention toward one of the report's few pure compliments: that the bureau is better than most when it comes to reviewing errors. But after a detailed review of the 90-plus-page report, prepared by the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review (OIR), a far bleaker picture emerges.

While the bureau might be trying to improve, communication lapses at shooting scenes, training issues, investigative shortfalls, and long delays in interviewing officers involved in shootings remain very real problems that have yet to be adequately addressed.

"Many of these events raise questions about officers' ability to communicate with each other at the scene of critical incidents, to consider alternative plans, and to respond quickly and effectively when a subject has been downed by police gunfire," the report's authors write. "In some cases, [the bureau's] evolution is notable and commendable. Others lead us—and members of the public—to question why the bureau had not learned more from its prior shooting incidents."

The OIR report, expected to be the first in a series, focuses on seven shootings from 2004 through 2010, most of which involved someone enduring a mental health crisis: James Jahar Perez in 2004; Raymond Gwerder, 2005; Jerry Goins, 2006; Lesley Stewart, 2007; Jason Spoor, 2008; Aaron Campbell, 2010; and Jack Dale Collins, 2010.

OIR lays out a series of recommendations meant to address its concerns, with some more controversial than others.

High on that list is a call to stop giving officers 48 hours after a shooting before internal affairs investigators can sit down with them. That change would require renegotiating labor contracts with the city's two police unions, the Portland Police Association (PPA) and the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association (PPCOA).

While that wouldn't affect the cops who actually fire shots—as criminal suspects, they'd still be able to claim Fifth Amendment protection to get out of an internal affairs interview—it would affect all the other officers on scene at a shooting and defuse any concerns about cops getting together to get their stories straight.

"This circumstance is unfortunate," the report says of the delay. "Public confidence in internal police investigations would be enhanced if involved officers would agree to be interviewed on the date of the incident."

Both union contracts come up for renewal next year—and, significantly, both of Portland's mayoral candidates tell the Mercury that if they win the job, and become police commissioner, they'd be willing to consider the change.

"The 48-hour rule is one of the most obvious changes I'm interested in making," says former City Commissioner Charlie Hales. "I have not heard and have difficulty imagining an argument for why [the delay] is a good idea."

State Representative Jefferson Smith, who's been endorsed by the PPA and received, as of last month, $10,000 from the PPA's political action committee, was more nuanced.

"It should be a matter for negotiation," says Smith, who also wants to look at what other cities are doing. "I want to be tutored less by politics and more by the facts."

Later, the report rips the bureau over "a central shortcoming" in its post-shooting reviews: "the reluctance" by its training division "to second guess an officer's split-second decisions in the field." The report says the bureau considered whether it was even okay to use deadly force just once, in the Campbell shooting.

"To decline to delve into the possible reasons why an officer mistook one action for another is to turn away from this subject matter when its examination is most vital," the report says.

Other recommendations include adding explicit limits on officers' use of Tasers and, because "the bureau continues to be stymied" by communication gaffes, a call to train all officers on "critical incident" management.

But not all accountability advocates are bullish on the findings.

"Our people paid a high premium for a mix of public relations advice and common sense," says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland. "There's no recommendation that would have stopped Jack Collins or Raymond Gwerder or Aaron Campbell from being killed."

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