Bowing to a federal probe into how its officers use force, the Portland Police Bureau last night announced a serious new regimen for what will happen the few hundred times a year when cops injure someone or do something like use a Taser, tackle someone, swing a baton, fire a beanbag gun, etc.
Starting January 15, a police sergeant will show up and immediately interview the officer(s) involved and any witnesses, and take photos. And then the sergeant will write an "after-action" report that includes a recommendation on whether the cop who used force did so according to the bureau's rules. Under current procedures, only the officer who uses force will write an immediate report, with a sergeant reviewing that document later.
The new review, however, will not apply to the 600 or so times a year an officer points a gun at someone. Which is an unfortunate omission. Because pointing a gun is the most decisive step there is toward using a gun.
Still, it's a good step for the bureau—which acknowledged that other cities were doing a better job tracking use of force by officers. The city already has similar reviews in place for vehicle pursuits and officer-involved shootings, and this shows the bureau (whether on its own or because the Justice Department told it to) is getting more serious about cracking down on potential abuses when it comes to other physical police tactics.
"It's a combination of both the investigation itself, feedback we've gotten, and because we see it as proactive management practice," Lieutenant Robert King, a bureau spokesman, told me last night.
But will it work? Will it be effective?
Expect a challenge from the Portland Police Association, whose president told the Oregonian last night that he wasn't consulted. The finer points of discipline and internal investigations are typically seen as bargaining issues better haggled over during contract negotiations.
And while watchdogs like Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman said any new reporting is better than what's currently in place, Handelman said he also worries that putting a police officer in charge of another police officer might not produce the most accurate picture of what happened.
"That kind of discussion happens a lot," Handelman says, "as to where the cops try to convince the witnesses that what they saw isn't what they say. We'd like there to be a civilian component."
Here's the statement police sent out last night:
Beginning on January 15, 2012, the Portland Police Bureau will begin a new method of reviewing Bureau members‚ use of force. This change is in response to the current Department of Justice investigation into the Bureau's use of force as well as research conducted into best practices among major cities.
This new policy requires an involved member's supervisor to respond to the scene to conduct an administrative review of all uses of force. A use of force event is defined by the Police Bureau as an incident where a member is required to complete a Force Data Collection Form (except when the only force applied is the pointing of a firearm); where the member's actions caused physical injury; where the member's actions resulted in a complaint of physical injury by the subject; or the member's actions resulted in a subject or witness making a complaint of excessive force at the scene.
It's important to note that out of the more than 400,000 citizen contacts made by Portland Police officers each year, less than 1% (0.25% to be exact) of these contacts results in a use of force event.
"As the Chief of this outstanding organization, I am committed to providing the very best service to the City of Portland," said Chief Michael Reese. "In doing so, I believe it is paramount that we conduct force investigations in the most professional and transparent manner possible. Based on the recommendations of the DOJ's expert, and consistent with national best practices, I am changing the way the Portland Police Bureau investigates the use of force."
Over the last several months, the Police Bureau has reviewed how major cities across the United States conduct force investigations. In addition, Lexipol, a private company that produces Policy and Procedures for many police agencies, was consulted and concurred that the Portland Police Bureau was not conforming to best practice as it relates to the investigation of force.