Mercury Staff

On May 16, a small audience witnessed an act rarely seen on the public stage: A police officer was held accountable for doing something wrong.

For the first time in Portland history, city commissioners overturned a police chief’s decision and voted to uphold a citizen’s allegation that an officer violated Portland Police Bureau (PPB) policy. The majority council vote means that the PPB must discipline the accused officer, even if Chief Danielle Outlaw doesn’t think it’s warranted.

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“It’s a historic day,” said Dan Handelman, the founder of Portland Copwatch, after the vote. To Handelman and other longtime police oversight advocates, the vote is a rare sign that the convoluted, glacial system that Portland uses to determine whether an officer violated PPB policy is working.

The only problem? Mayor Ted Wheeler disagrees.

Wheeler, who campaigned on a promise to strengthen the PPB’s accountability system, was the sole commissioner to vote in favor of the police bureau on May 16. Before the vote, Wheeler also questioned why City Council should be able to overturn a disciplinary decision made by the PPB.

“I wonder,” Wheeler said, “if this is really a fair or reasonable process.”

Portland has long struggled to create a police review system that includes some semblance of civilian oversight. While few familiar with the process of the city’s Independent Police Review (IPR) believe it’s without flaws, Wheeler’s critique suggests he’d prefer even less transparent review procedures for Portland cops accused of misconduct. This idea—which clashes with the very reason the IPR was created 18 years ago—leaves advocates questioning where Wheeler’s allegiances lie: with the officers he employs or the community he was elected to represent.

It’s incredibly rare for City Council to hear an IPR case. To understand why, one first has to grasp the painful intricacies of the city’s officer complaint process, which is overseen by the IPR.

The IPR was created in 2001 to field complaints from members of the public who believe an officer violated PPB policies—allegations that can include everything from officer profanity to an unjustified use of deadly force. Citizens’ complaints are sent to either an IPR investigator or an investigator within PPB’s internal affairs office. IPR investigators exist to offer a more neutral examination of specific complaints, like those involving high-ranking officers, discrimination or retaliation against a member of the public, or free speech restrictions. PPB’s internal affairs investigates everything else.

“I have serious concerns about this process. I have concerns about having a simple majority of an elected city council being able to overturn the police commissioner [and] the chief... on what is effectively an HR disciplinary measure.”

If investigators find that the police officer in question violated PPB policy, they kick their findings to the police chief, who then chooses whether or not to discipline the officer. If investigators find that an officer didn’t break the rules, the case is closed—unless the person who filed the complaint wants to appeal the decision.

That appeal is heard by the all-volunteer Citizen Review Committee (CRC). If the 11-person CRC sides with the citizen, the police chief gets involved and usually reaches some kind of settlement, like agreeing to discipline the officer or improve cop training on a certain policy. In the rare cases when the police chief refuses to agree their officer made a mistake, then—and only then—does the allegation warrant a City Council vote.

The final befuddling piece of this labyrinthine process is how the commissioners are expected to vote. Instead of voicing their own opinion on the case, commissioners decide whether, based on the facts, a “reasonable person” would come to the police chief’s conclusion.

This month marked only the third time in 18 years that one of these appeals landed before City Council—and the first time commissioners voted in support of the appellant.

The particular complaint, filed by Kristin Bowling, accuses PPB Officer Neil Parker of retaliating against Bowling for taking photos of an armored police vehicle as it pulled into a PPB parking garage. According to Parker, the officer behind the wheel, Bowling was making a face that “express[ed] disapproval” while she snapped photos. Parker wrote Bowling a citation for jaywalking, despite her being only one of several people crossing the low-traffic street at the time.

For some unclear reason, this retaliation case was investigated by PPB internal affairs, not the IPR. Those PPB investigators initially concluded that Parker did not act in retaliation, but Bowling appealed, and the CRC supported her claim. Outlaw, however, firmly believed there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that Parker acted in retaliation, which left city commissioners with the responsibility of deciding if a “reasonable person” would agree with Outlaw’s analysis.

“I have come to know... Chief Outlaw over the time she’s been in office and, in general, find her a very reasonable person,” said Commissioner Amanda Fritz at the May 16 meeting. “However, in this particular decision, I don’t find her or the Police Bureau’s decision reasonable.”

Fritz pointed to Parker’s interview with PPB investigators—interviews that are never made public—where he said, “I don’t care about people recording me, but there was something about this whole event that spurred me on to... write a citation.”

Parker went on, according to Fritz: “I mean, to me... it’s the filming and... [I thought], because of this photograph, I’m going to write this ticket.”

Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty agreed with Fritz, leaving Wheeler the sole vote in support of Outlaw. (Commissioner Nick Fish was absent that afternoon.)

Wheeler—who serves as both Portland’s mayor and police commissioner—argued that because Parker told investigators that he “did not care” about being photographed, it was clear he wasn’t acting in retaliation. But, being the final commissioner to vote, Wheeler also knew his dissent would not change the outcome.

“I’ve already lost this one, and that’s democracy at work,” Wheeler said before casting his vote.

“The mayor is not the first person to observe that Portland has a very unusual police accountability system. But you can’t call this an HR decision.”

The council’s majority vote means that, unless it’s delayed by an objection from the police union, Parker will likely be disciplined for retaliation. Based on the PPB’s discipline guide, he faces anywhere from two days of unpaid leave to termination. It’s a significant punishment for Portland’s rarely reprimanded police force.

That gravity wasn’t lost on Wheeler.

“There’s something else I want to say,” he said before ending the council hearing. “I have serious concerns about this process. I have concerns about having a simple majority of an elected city council being able to overturn the police commissioner [and] the chief... on what is effectively an HR disciplinary measure.”

It’s this comment that troubled police watchdogs like Handelman who remembers IPR’s predecessor, the Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee (PIIAC). Under PIIAC, the police chief was allowed to overrule City Council votes on a citizen’s police misconduct appeal. Time after time, police chiefs used that veto power to protect officers from discipline.

IPR was largely created to correct that self-policing policy, allowing city commissioners to have the final say on these appeals.

Handelman, who sat on the 2000 committee that created the IPR, said he met with Wheeler early in the mayor’s first term to explain the significance of this history. That’s why Wheeler’s comment was so disheartening to hear.

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“Clearly our conversation didn’t stick,” said Handelman. “This is not just a HR decision, it’s a civilian check on the paramilitary body the city employs. That comment made it seem like he was working on behalf of the police.”

Amanda Lamb, interim director of the IPR, declined to comment on Wheeler’s critique, saying the IPR doesn’t comment on council decisions.

On the 2016 campaign trail, Wheeler repeatedly criticized the city for not having enough power to hold police responsible for their errors. By the end of his first year in office, Wheeler successfully addressed one aspect of the issue­—eliminating a rule allowing cops who shoot people to wait 48 hours after the shooting before being interviewed by an internal affairs investigator.

But ever since, Wheeler has been accused of increasingly obsequious behavior toward the PPB. It’s been particularly evident in his treatment of the IPR. Wheeler’s concern with City Council’s “civilian check” on the city’s police comes two weeks after he made a similar observation about the CRC, the only other layer of civilian oversight included in the IPR process.

On May 2, after CRC explained to City Council why they voted to support Bowling’s appeal, Wheeler said he was “struggling” to understand how they came to this conclusion if the six other people who reviewed the case before the CRC didn’t agree. (Five of those six people were members of the police bureau, and one was an investigator with IPR.)

“The best thing our police accountability system can be doing is to make sure the public has faith in the system.”

This stumped the members of the civilian oversight committee. “If the mayor just expects us to agree with the police, what’s the point?” CRC Vice Chair Candace Avalos told the Mercury after the meeting.

Both Avalos and Kristin Malone, an attorney who’s chaired the CRC since 2015, attended the May 16 City Council meeting. While Malone says she was happy the final vote favored Bowling’s appeal, she was unsettled by Wheeler’s remarks.

“The mayor is not the first person to observe that Portland has a very unusual police accountability system. It’s not wrong to say the winding path the community must take to hold police accountable is problematic,” Malone says. “But you can’t call this an HR decision. It’s not like someone in the Water Bureau went against city policy. These decisions have real importance in the community.”

Malone has consistently advocated for a more transparent and equitable IPR system. To no avail, she and other CRC members have routinely pressed City Council to do away with the wonky “reasonable person” standard of review. If Wheeler truly wanted to reimagine police oversight in Portland, Malone says, she wouldn’t complain—unless it meant keeping even more of the process from the public.

“It would be a massive mistake to completely hide the process within the Police Bureau,” she says. “The best thing our police accountability system can be doing is to make sure the public has faith in the system.”

The current system has already lost Bowling’s trust. She believes the sliver of civilian oversight—represented only at the very end of the drawn-out process by the CRC and City Council—isn’t enough to truly reform the city’s police bureau.

Bowling has spent the past two years steering her case through IPR’s slow-moving complaint process. In her brief testimony prior to the City Council vote, Bowling made sure commissioners understood what she’s gained from a process that “allows the police to investigate themselves.”

“I’ve learned that the IPR process fails and is biased toward police in so many ways... I don’t have time to list them all,” Bowling said. “I am also not under much illusion that even if you do vote in my favor, that the officers involved will change their ways.”

“In the end,” she said, “the result will make very little difference.”