That was the conclusion, Wednesday, of the city's Citizen Review Committee, after a bizarre and baroque hearing that laid bare tensions in Portland's police accountability system. The
8-member 11-member CRC, an offshoot of Portland's Independent Police Review, is charged, in part, with reviewing the Portland Police Bureau's reviews of itself after citizens file complaints.
In this case, the panel was looking at the bureau's conclusion that two commanding officers were merely doing their jobs when they ordered a "kettle" outside police headquarters on November 29, 2014, amid a boisterous but largely peaceful demonstration over the death of Missouri teen Michael Brown.
The fact the CRC found those orders weren't constitutional might be a big deal. It sets up a scenario where the matter could wind up before Portland City Council at some point, which never happens. But it also raised big questions about the city's process for addressing police abuses.
You know about the kettling ordeal, if you read Blogtown. Our former news editor Denis C. Theriault—a turncoat, lo these 10 months—was one of the people "arrested" as cops moved in, and wrote bunches about the frustrating experience.
Denis captured how a sort-of-routine (for this time period) "die-in" near the police bureau changed suddenly as cops moved in and announced mass arrests. Only 10 people were technically arrested—meaning cuffed and booked. The rest were eventually let go, but many others on hand said they believed they'd been arrested. After all, cops had said they were "arrested," and detained them in a sort of human sack.
Which is where the CRC's meeting Wednesday went all screwy.
After the "arrests," something like 40 people filed complaints with the Independent Police Review, which conducted an investigation, and wound up forwarding two allegations on to the police bureau to sort through. Since the cops in question were largely anonymous, and those allegations had to stand in for the experience of dozens of people, the verbiage was pretty vague. They were:
•That Commander Sara Westbrook, the senior officer on the scene, "ordered arrests of protestors which were not constitutionally valid."
•And that another sergeant present (Denis' account mentions a Sgt. Richard Stainbrook, though I don't know that's who we're talking about) did the same.
Not surprisingly, the cops reviewed the allegations and found that Westbrook and the unnamed sergeant had acted within bureau policy and done nothing wrong.
But what shocked a lot of people on hand tonight is that the cops didn't consider most of complainants when making that call. Captain Bryan Parman said he only considered the experiences of the 10 people who'd actually been cuffed.
That's a problem for a couple reasons. For one, it shows the police bureau took only the narrowest view of the allegations against it, even though the circumstances of the complaints would have suggested the bureau look into the "kettling" incident as a whole, and not just who was handcuffed. (By the way, according to cops, the November 2014 incident was the first and only time the bureau's used the kettling maneuver, which is included in bureau policy).
More immediately, it's a problem because the one protestor who wound up appealing the police bureau's finding, a woman named Theresa Holloway, wasn't cuffed. She was kettled and let go, and she thinks the police bureau should answer for swiftly detaining protestors with little or no warning.
So the issue facing the CRC tonight was that it had an appellant disputing police findings that didn't apply to her, and which were based on super-vague allegations to begin with. The whole thing put the CRC into fits. They couldn't decide whether to order further investigation, or to put the whole matter on ice, or to take a formal vote on whether the PPB's findings were justified. And they really weren't happy they were in that position.
"This is a case that very much illustrates how the whole system is broken," said CRC Chair Mae Wilson. "They’re not even structural flaws, they’re massive fissures in terms of how it’s working."
Most of the frustration seemed to center on the Independent Police Review (IPR), the body that investigated protestors complaints and worded the allegations forwarded on to the police bureau. Members say they've had problems with the wording of allegations for years (former CRC member Jeff Bissonnette, on hand at the hearing, said the same issues were raised when he joined the group 6.5 years ago). One CRC member, Jim Young, went so far as to call the allegations' wording "illegal" and "unconstitutional."
IPR Director Constantine Severe defended his team, noting that specific allegations are really hard to craft when you've got 40 people complaining about the same thing. ( Severe acknowledged after the hearing some of the difficulty could have been avoided if the wording of the allegations against officers had been slightly different—for instance saying "detained" rather than "arrested—and diplomatically called it a "learning experience.")
Nothing much came of this very polite sniping, except vague pledges to take care of systemic problems in the future. The matter, instead, ended with a sort of surprising vote. After failing to reach agreement on two different outcomes—ordering more investigation, and finding the allegations were "not sustained"—the majority of the CRC voted that, yes, the two powerful officers had violated protestors' constitutional rights.
That challenge to the police bureau's conclusions now will go to Chief Larry O'Dea. If O'Dea doesn't agree, and if the CRC sticks to its guns, the matter would go before Portland City Council at some point in the future—the Portland civics version of elevating the lingering "kettling" controversy from late-night public access television to network prime time.
If that analogy sounds terrible, keep in mind I just got out of a super-confusing, super-wonky, super-long hearing. And I'm not the only one feeling discombobulated.
"The whole process is just a way to intimidate people," Holloway, the successful appellant, said after the hearing, "and make it so confusing no one understands their rights."