THE POLICE BUREAU and an oversight group charged with keeping it in check are feuding, and it's ugly.
Earlier this week, a planned meeting of the city's Citizen Review Committee (CRC) was cancelled because of what happened the week prior: a contentious three-and-a-half-hour appeal hearing, in which a small group of activists taunted a police captain with Nazi references, and even threw a full cup of water on a committee member.
"Appeal hearings can be unpredictable," says Kristin Malone, chair of the CRC, a volunteer offshoot of the auditor's Independent Police Review (IPR). She notes, though: "The response was definitely more hectic than usual."
The decision to cancel the meeting comes days after Police Chief Larry O'Dea wrote a memo to IPR Director Constantin Severe saying he "can no longer support having my employees participating" at the meetings unless security is ramped up (and until Severe is a little nicer in his memos regarding certain cops).
Tension is nothing new at the CRC, which focuses on citizen complaints against police, but longtime watchdogs say last week's dustup—and the events that have followed—are something else.
"I've never seen anything like that at a CRC meeting," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, who has been closely following the police department for more than two decades. He adds, though, that he thinks police have been "playing the victim" in their response.
The circumstances of last Wednesday's meeting were something of a perfect storm: A passionate group of police activists convened in the Portland Building to hear the appeal of one of their own, police-filming activist Robert Lee West.
West filed a complaint last year after an officer got out of his car and grabbed West's camera as he was legally filming police downtown. The city's Police Review Board tossed the complaint, finding there wasn't enough evidence to rule against the officer, Scott Groshong.
But Severe, in a February 1 memo, called for an expedited appeal and railed against Groshong's boss—somewhat notorious Captain Mark Kruger—for acting "akin to a defense counsel... as opposed to a neutral fact-finder." He also criticized Kruger's "hostile and combative" behavior in front of the Police Review Board and his "disrespect" toward the police bureau's internal affairs unit and IPR.
It all made for quite a scene.
At the meeting, activists faced off from their seats—and sometimes the stage—against Kruger, there to defend Groshong. They repeatedly called the captain a "Nazi," referencing a Nazi memorial he'd once infamously set up in a public park.
Malone tells the Mercury she was told not to kick anyone out of the meeting "unless you want to become a defendant in a lawsuit." She now believes that direction was wrong, and learned she had the authority to do so.
The CRC convened that night to determine whether the ruling on West's complaint was reasonable. Was grabbing the camera unprofessional?
Kruger and Commander George Burke said they couldn't really tell if the camera was grabbed or if Groshong merely put his hand in front of the lens, despite a publicly available video clearly showing it was the former.
"There is no evidence in this video that the officer grabbed the camera at any time," Kruger told the CRC, to more jeers from the crowd.
The CRC majority ultimately sided with West, voting 5-2 against the PRB's finding ("There was no way Captain Kruger could have viewed the same video I viewed," Malone explained in the meeting.) It's now up to O'Dea to accept the CRC's disciplinary recommendations or attend a conference hearing with the group. The matter will go to the Portland City Council if they can't work out their differences.
The general upheaval of the meeting culminated after the vote, when activist Charles Johnson walked onstage and threw a cup of water on James Young, one of two CRC members to side with the police. Johnson was escorted out by a security guard.
It all led to the memo from O'Dea, who told Severe he won't have police officers at the CRC meeting until security is beefed up. Police union leader Daryl Turner wrote an email to members, saying they shouldn't show up for the meetings.
The CRC came to similar conclusions.
"I had not read Chief O'Dea's memo before I agreed to cancel the meeting," Malone says. "When I read it, I shared a lot of his concerns."
At the meeting scheduled for this week, the CRC was supposed to hear the appeal of a defense attorney who says she was grabbed and insulted by police last year. She'll have to wait a little bit longer.
"Given what happened at Wednesday's CRC meeting," Severe says, "the auditor and the CRC chair decided to cancel this week's meeting to reevaluate our safety protocols to allow future CRC meetings to be held in a safe environment."