Seven volunteers on a Portland police oversight committee took their seats as scheduled last Wednesday evening. City staffers were also there, as was a man appealing the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) exoneration of two cops he said unfairly roughed him up.
Then there were the four empty chairs clustered on the left side of the room. Everyone knew who was missing.
For the first time anyone can remember, Portland police essentially boycotted their citizen oversight board on April 20, three weeks after a tumultuous meeting of the Citizen Review Committee (CRC) that culminated in an activist throwing a cup of water on a CRC member who had sided with the cops over a citizen's appeal.
Now everyone's pointing fingers in a strange battle over how audience members and meeting attendees should be treated.
The events raise an interesting question in an often contentious police oversight system: Can both sides come up with a way to adhere to open-meeting laws in the spirit of transparency, while reining in potentially disruptive people at the same time? That remains to be seen.
Last week's police no-show threw a wrench into what should have been a run-of-the-mill meeting.
"It is the [police] bureau's position that we have not done enough, or have not clearly stated the security procedures that we'll be operating under, and they cannot support the attendance of their members," CRC Chair Kristin Malone said a few minutes into the gathering, "which makes hearing an appeal difficult."
The CRC had already cancelled its April 6 meeting to address safety issues, after Police Chief Larry O'Dea issued a strongly worded memo. The city's Independent Police Review (IPR) and CRC members thought they'd worked out acceptable new security measures: multiple security guards in the room (instead of one, outside), a cordoned-off area limiting audience members' movement, the ability to kick out disruptive people (instead of admonishments, which city attorneys had mistakenly advised Malone in previous meetings was the most she could issue), and more. The CRC's James Young, the victim in the water-throwing attack, was unfazed and ready to participate.
There were even meetings with the police just a few days prior to the no-show; the IPR and CRC thought it was all worked out.
Until, that is, about an hour before the April 20 meeting, when Assistant Chief Donna Henderson sent an email saying she still wouldn't allow cops to show up because of "lack of detail in procedures from the CRC," and a city human resources rule that prohibits "workplace harassment."
"What the bureau wants is to continue to push off our hearings because they want to keep talking," Malone said of the police after reading Henderson's email out loud. "I want us to order them to be here."
The CRC did just that. Frustrated by the late-notice no-show, members voted unanimously to legally force the PPB to attend a May 4 meeting.
It's the first time the CRC has ever had to compel the department to be in attendance. And if an internal affairs director and the commanding officer of a cop who's got a complaint hearing doesn't show up next week, they'll be breaking the law.
"That would be, frankly, a very serious offense as a city employee and police officer," said IPR Director Constantin Severe.
Each side in this feud essentially told the Mercury that the other is being unreasonable. City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero (who oversees the IPR) and Severe (who oversees the CRC) say they've done enough, and have addressed all of the bureau's legitimate safety concerns. Meanwhile, the PPB and police union still have vague complaints that more needs to be done.
Mayor Charlie Hales, in a statement to the Mercury, said he's "disappointed IPR and PPB employees failed to sufficiently communicate before this meeting."
Caballero disagrees with the mayor on that. Her office communicated with the police bureau just fine, she says, having met with an assistant chief, an internal affairs captain, building security, and the mayor's police policy director prior to last week's meeting.
"We discussed what people's roles were and came up with some bases that people felt they needed to have covered," the auditor said. "And we covered those bases. It was communicated back to the bureau, but they decided they weren't going to show up because they thought it wasn't good enough."
Was she surprised to find the police still skipped out?
"Yes," she said. "I don't know what their concerns are. If they articulated them earlier, maybe I would have a fuller appreciation for it.... There was a dramatic difference [in security precautions] from one meeting to the next; a lot of steps were taken."
For its part, the PPB says audience behavior has been an issue at the meetings for a while. The March 30 water attack—along with numerous verbal outbursts targeting a police captain—was just the last straw.
"These precautions were already in place, but had not been previously enforced, and the police bureau's concern is how they would be enforced and by whom," says Sergeant Pete Simpson, the bureau's spokesperson.
Daryl Turner, president of the city's rank-and-file police union, the Portland Police Association, says he's been complaining to the CRC for months about the people who show up. The audience is disrespectful, he says, and the CRC doesn't do enough to stop it, especially during public comment portions of meetings. (Turner used the phrase "fair and equitable" six times in a 12-minute conversation to describe what he wants.)
"When they tell people they need to be respectful to everyone there, then we expect the same type of regard that we would give everybody else there," he said. "Not adhering to the time constraints of how long people have to talk, not adhering to being respectful to everyone there no matter what your opinion.... It's not fair, it's not equitable."
The command staff and an internal affairs representative will now have to show up next Wednesday, per city law. Turner is still directing his members—those cops who have complaints filed against them—not to attend. They often don't anyway, as only their commanding officers are required to be there. Turner says he'll speak for his members at the appeal, as he's done before.
The next CRC meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 4, at 5:30 pm in the Portland Building. It should be a fun one.