Let’s follow the path of a low-level police misconduct case through the city’s convoluted investigation process! (Stick with me—it’s less mind-numbing than it sounds, promise.)
A woman comes to the city’s Independent Police Review (IPR) with a complaint: A Portland police officer called her a “bitch.” She has witnesses: two other officers and a bystander. The bystander says he’s “pretty sure” he heard the cop call this woman a bitch. The cops, however, tell their supervisor they have “no recollection” of the event.
The cops’ supervisor, a sergeant, tells the IPR that she believes her officers, and the case should be dropped. But the woman appeals, taking her complaint to the city’s Citizen Review Committee (CRC), the 11-member panel of civilian volunteers tasked with hearing these appeals and delivering their findings to the chief of police. It’s then up to the chief to decide if the accused officer should be disciplined.
And that’s when the city’s elaborate police accountability machine breaks down.
When hearing a complaint, members of the CRC are told to consider if a “reasonable person” could agree with the decision that’s being appealed. In this case, the CRC would ask itself if a reasonable person (like a police sergeant) could believe that two officers might not remember what another cop said.
But instead of objectively weighing both sides of the complaint, CRC members are expected to consider the decision from the perspective of the police bureau.
“We’re essentially just adopting the case through the eyes of the sergeant,” Citizen Review Committee Chair Kristin Malone tells me. “Why have [this group of] 11 supposedly neutral people if they aren’t giving decision-makers their honest take?”
It’s a frustration that those on the panel—a mix of lawyers, policy experts, and criminal justice wonks—have had for years. And as the CRC continues to protect officers who may not be as innocent as their “reasonable” superiors believe, the committee is faced with an uncomfortable question: Is a program created to improve police accountability in Portland actually making things worse?
After nearly three years of back-and-forth among committee members, city lawyers, and community cop-watchers, the CRC has suggested a change. Instead of pondering how a “reasonable person” would react when faced with a complaint, CRC members would be allowed to base their recommendations on the objective facts of the case—or, in legalese, the “preponderance of evidence” in the investigation case file.
The CRC asked for public input on the policy change in May and received near-unanimous support (thanks to an expected grimace from the Portland Police Association). According to Malone, the long-overdue policy could get council approval by the end of the year.
“To have a citizen come to you with a complaint against an officer and [to] tell them our decision will not be based on what we believe happened, but on what the officer’s boss believes happened?” says Malone. “That’s not fair.”
It’s certainly not reasonable.