It's another quirk of Portland's slapped-together system for police accountability: When internal affairs investigators at the Portland Police Bureau or staffers for the city's Independent Police Review (IPR) conduct an investigation into alleged officer misdeeds, they're not actually allowed to make a conclusion. Instead, the responsibility to recommend discipline in a case falls to the cop in question's commanding officer.
That's a system that police accountability types have long criticized—and which recently led to some internal strife between a police commander and the IPR director. And now it appears ripe for change.
Next week, Portland City Council will take up a code change that would allow IPR and IA investigators to actually weigh in on officer discipline after they've conducted an investigation. It's a tweak that IPR has pressed for since at least 2013, the office's director, Constantin Severe, told the Mercury Wednesday. It's also similar to a code change that was floated by City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero (who oversees IPR) last fall, before her proposal was watered down into a new package in March.
But importantly, the tweak council will consider next week also apparently has the approval of the Portland Police Association, the city's rank-and-file police union, which in the past has argued such a change must be bargained as part of its contract with the city. Asked about this Wednesday afternoon, PPA
Secretary President Daryl Turner said he was getting on a plane and couldn't discuss. He hasn't returned a voicemail message or email today.
One reason the police union might be on board with the revamped policy: It won't change all that much. While investigators would be able to recommend findings after looking into police misconduct, a cop's commander would still be allowed to issue their own recommendations if they disagree. And recommended discipline would still be considered by the five-member (but sometimes seven-member) Police Review Board, whose findings would ultimately fall to the police chief for a final call.
Still, Severe argues the new change is a way for IPR and internal affairs investigators to lay down a marker for how they feel about an incident. In cases where investigators believe discipline is warranted, that could offer further texture, should a commanding officer or the PRB believe no punishment is necessary.
"One could argue… there is no way for IPR to have meaningful independent investigations if we don't have a finding," Severe said Wednesday. "Having an ultimate conclusion allows a tighter product."
Council is scheduled to take up two more important issues around police accountability next week, as well.
One is a proposal from Mayor Ted Wheeler that could allow cops who've shot someone to be interviewed promptly by internal affairs investigators.
As we've reported, that had been happening following the negotiation of a new contract with the PPA last year. But the practice quietly stopped months ago, after Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill issued an opinion that such a practice would essentially pre-empt criminal prosecution of an officer, should it be appropriate.
Others disagree, and Wheeler is asking council to approve an ordinance [PDF] that would "wall off" internal investigations—which only seek to answer whether an officer acted out of policy—from criminal investigations. If approved, the policy would need to be approved by a judge before it went into practice.
And council will consider a new citizen body that will be asked to
weigh in on Portland's ongoing settlement with the US Department of Justice over police abuses of people with mental illness assist in developing better outreach policies at the Portland Police Bureau. The body would replace one mandated under the city's settlement with the US Department of Justice: the Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB). That group's first iteration dissolved amid squabbling and disarray. The Oregonian first reported last week that Wheeler will propose something called the "Portland Commission on Community-Engaged Policing" to take its place.
That commission would be selected entirely by the mayor—a notable difference from the COAB—and feature fewer meetings open to the public. As proposed, it would also have less input on the progress of the ongoing settlement agreement than the COAB was envisioned to have. Expect outcry from advocates.