PORTLAND POLICE CHIEFS used to have plenty of privacy when it came to punishing errant officers.
As recently as last year, then-Police Chief Mike Reese could look at mountains of evidence against an officer—including recommendations from the city's five-member Police Review Board (PRB), which hears the most severe misconduct cases—and quietly disregard it, meting out whatever justice he deemed appropriate free of public scrutiny.
There were high-profile exceptions, ["The Misconduct Files," News, Jan 16, 2013], but often cases went unchecked.
That all changed in early 2014, when the city's Independent Police Review (IPR) successfully lobbied a change to twice-yearly public reports on PRB hearings. For the first time, the reports were required to include the actual punishment an officer received—not just recommended discipline.
"You can't have a document like a public report that just kind of ends the story three-quarters of the way through," says IPR Director Constantin Severe. "Now we follow it through the whole process."
Except for when that doesn't happen.
In late July, the Portland Police Bureau released its latest summary of review board hearings, a 70-page compendium [pdf] of misconduct hearings that were finalized from December 2014 to June 2015. As usual, there's a grab bag of unsavory police behavior contained in the report—like a cop who was suspended for 10 hours after punching a man in the mouth while the suspect was being arrested by another officer, or a cop who lazily refused to write a report about an attempted robbery.
But the incident that one longtime Portland police critic says "borders on corruption" has more to do with transparency than egregious behavior.
While the new PRB report shows that Police Chief Larry O'Dea elected to suspend a cop named Alfonso Valadez Jr. for a day without pay because of a YouTube video the officer posted in late 2013, the actual punishment is less severe. It looks like Valadez will instead get off with a letter of reprimand.
That fact was first reported by the Oregonian, which heard about the report's misleading information from Valadez himself. If the officer had been unwilling to talk about his case—or if, like many cases in these PRB reports, the bureau's insistence on leaving officers anonymous made it impossible to figure out who was even being punished—it's possible the public would be left believing O'Dea had gone with the stronger verdict.
The distinction between a day without pay and a letter of reprimand isn't enormous, but the issue of trustworthiness is front and center today, as Portland works through a settlement with the US Department of Justice over police abuses and the nation is outraged by a continuous stream of shaky videos depicting questionable police activity. The misleading report also runs contrary to the clarity Portland City Council was hoping to instill when requiring police to list punishments in the first place.
"It's crucial for us to know what the outcome was," says Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman, the aforementioned longtime police critic.
Police bureau spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson says the report is actually correct. According to an agreement Valadez reached with police brass, the officer must speak to new officers about "responsible social media behavior" before he earns a reduced penalty. Since that's not scheduled to happen until later this month, Simpson says the penalty listed in the review board report isn't an error.
But the police spokesman also concedes that the bureau might have been more precise. "At the end of the day, it probably should have been reflected in the board memos to indicate that was the case," Simpson says of the agreement. "Why that didn't occur was, I think, a communication breakdown."
Simpson says the case is unique, and that the other listed punishments in the report are correct.
The conduct that led to Valadez's discipline is one of the more interesting incidents of misconduct in the new report. In December 2013, a video surfaced on YouTube that, according to news coverage at the time, showed a Portland cop firing a gun at a shooting range, and featured surveillance footage of the same officer pushing a suspect at a detox facility. Valadez eventually admitted to posting the video under the name "Ghetto Productions," and to co-opting surveillance footage obtained as part of a police investigation.
The Police Review Board was conflicted on how severely the officer should be punished. Two members advocated suspending Valadez for two days. Two others thought a single-day suspension would suffice. The final member pushed for a letter of reprimand.
O'Dea, as we've learned, went with two of the three options.
"I would hope that something like this wouldn't happen again," says IPR's Severe, of the misleading report. "Given the times we live in, the public really finds this stuff important."