ON AN AUTUMN morning in 2015, a Portland cop named Scott Groshong decided to harass a member of the public.
Robert West, one of a small clutch of people who frequently videotape local police, was filming near the Portland Police Bureau’s downtown garage on October 20, 2015, when Groshong was pulling out in his city-issued SUV.
The video West shot that day shows Groshong stopping after emerging from the garage, stepping out of his SUV, and approaching West to briefly grab at the video camera before driving away. He appears to feign confusion about West’s identity, then smiles and says “I know exactly who you are” as he walks off.
In the realm of police misconduct, the incident is tiny. But it’s had huge reverberations in Portland’s complicated police oversight system.
Documents obtained by the Mercury show that the six-second confrontation ultimately grew into a months-long battle between a notorious police captain and the city’s head police watchdog.
That battle included formal human resource complaints of “bullying” filed by police Captain Mark Kruger—who’s head of the PPB’s drugs and vice enforcement, but is probably best known for once erecting a memorial to Nazi soldiers in a public park roughly 15 years ago.
It also led the city to order an outside investigation [PDF] that unearthed concerns regarding Kruger’s ideas about police accountability, and concluded that Constantin Severe, head of the city’s Independent Police Review (IPR), shared confidential information in violation of city code.
More generally, the incident has added to ongoing concerns about how Portland holds police accountable, and who should have a say in disciplining bad behavior. Those questions might come before Portland City Council next month.
But let’s start at the beginning.
High-ranking officers were concerned as soon as footage emerged of Groshong briefly harassing West. According to the outside investigation into two HR complaints Kruger would later file, police Captain Mike Crebs even believed Groshong “might have committed a crime.”
But under the oversight system, the decision as to whether the officer broke any bureau rules didn’t fall to Crebs, or even to the PPB’s internal affairs unit, which investigated the matter. It fell to Kruger, Groshong’s boss. And Kruger didn’t see any evidence of unprofessional conduct.
The police captain was so convinced his employee had acted honorably, in fact, that he suggested the police bureau shouldn’t have deigned to investigate the matter (a decision which was recognized by the chief of police as a violation of bureau policy).
“Officer Groshong even goes to the trouble of writing a report,” Kruger wrote in his formal findings on the incident, “which, in the conjunction with a review of the video, should have resulted in the rejection of this complaint in the first instance.”
This, according to Kruger’s superiors at the time, was plainly wrong.
Two assistant chiefs and then-Chief Larry O’Dea would tell the outside investigator that Kruger never should have said such a thing. O’Dea was concerned enough about the sentiment that he instructed then-Assistant Chief Donna Henderson to “counsel Kruger to make it clear that courtesy complaints would not be declined.”
Severe shared the worry. Both he and Captain Derek Rodrigues, then head of the PPB’s internal affairs unit, wrote memos arguing against Kruger’s findings. In a strongly worded statement, Severe called Kruger’s opinion “corrosive.”
“If other members of the command staff engage in such behavior,” he wrote, “it has the potential to undermine the Police Bureau’s efforts to hold its members accountable.”
Kruger and Severe had a chance to reconcile their views in January 2016, when the case came before the PPB’s internal Police Review Board (PRB). The board is a five-member panel (three cops, two civilians) that meets out of sight of the general public. When there’s disagreement over allegations of police misconduct, it’s the PRB’s job to decide who’s right.
The deliberations are supposed to be confidential. These weren’t.
After an acrimonious hearing—in which witnesses said an otherwise-professional Kruger seemed to wage personal attacks, and resulting in Kruger’s opinion prevailing, four votes to one—Severe posted a two-page memo to IPR’s website.
“Captain Kruger’s behavior at the Police Review Board was hostile and combative,” Severe wrote. “Captain Kruger was disrespectful to Internal Affairs and openly disdainful towards to [sic] IPR.”
Severe says he felt compelled to post his concerns to let the public know what was going on. The city’s outside investigator says he violated city code.
“Severe violated the PPB directive and City Code providing that PRB discussions and deliberations are confidential by making them public,” says the report by Jill Goldsmith of Workplace Solutions Northwest. “I believe that Severe publicized this memo as part of the interpersonal conflict that he and Kruger had been engaging in.”
Both Kruger and Severe declined to talk to the Mercury about the report. Severe’s boss, City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, disagreed with the findings and didn’t discipline him. She also wrote a memo [PDF] taking issue with the fact-finding report.
“He used his best judgment in a difficult situation,” Hull Caballero tells the Mercury, arguing that there’s leeway in the city code to allow Severe license in sharing information about the PRB. “I would never want an IPR employee to see something they consider out of line or inappropriate and not speak out.”
But when Severe spoke out, it led to more conflict: Kruger fired off an angry email to his superiors, and lodged a formal human resources complaint [PDF] against Severe.
In the complaint, Kruger singled out Severe for “bullying” and for “a concerted attempt to intimidate me as a commanding officer from carrying out my rightful duties...” He alleged the IPR director had violated a host of city rules. Kruger also lodged a complaint against Rodrigues, head of internal affairs, though the city declined to disclose information about it.
Kruger certainly had cause to know about such complaints. In the recent past, he himself had faced allegations from a subordinate who claimed Kruger harassed and retaliated against her. Some of those allegations were dismissed, but the city did conclude that Kruger retaliated against his former employee, Kristy Galvan. In addition, state investigators looking into Galvan’s claims found “substantial evidence” that she experienced harassment.
But it all came to naught. In a highly controversial move, the discipline was scrubbed from Kruger’s record as part of a 2014 settlement with the city, along with his 2010 disciplinary action for building an illegal Nazi tribute on Rocky Butte roughly 15 years ago.
After Kruger’s HR complaint against Severe, things got worse. With the PRB finding that Groshong had done nothing wrong, West—the man whose camera Groshong grabbed—appealed to the city’s Citizen Review Committee (CRC). The group wound up concluding Groshong had acted unprofessionally, but only after a hearing punctuated by outbursts from audience members—including frequent allusions to Kruger being a Nazi—and ending with a member of the citizen board being doused with a cup of water.
After that chaos, Kruger filed yet another complaint against Severe, this time lumping in Hull Caballero [PDF]. He says they should have stopped the meeting.
The outside investigation exonerated both Severe and Hull Caballero, and found Severe hadn’t been the bully Kruger claimed. It ultimately only faulted Severe for disclosing information about the PRB.
So what comes of all this drama? Possibly some substantive change in how police misbehavior is handled.
As part of a series of changes Hull Caballero plans to bring before council next month, she wants to create authority for IPR or internal affairs investigators to draw conclusions about whether a cop has violated bureau policy—not that officer’s commanding officer, as occurs today.
That change was recommended by the US Department of Justice, which is overseeing Portland police reforms, says Hull Caballero. In Groshong’s case, it would have largely cut out Kruger’s role, a change it appears the DOJ would welcome.
In an October 2016 status report on the city’s police reforms, DOJ attorneys lit into Kruger, chastising him for filing a complaint against Severe following the water-throwing incident and painting him as an impediment to reform.
“The water was not thrown at the Captain. Yet, the Captain continues to attack the very accountability systems deigned to build confidence in legitimate policing,” the report said. “Thus, the Captain continues to undermine public confidence in PPB and makes every officer’s job less safe.”