A long-awaited analysis of the internal dynamics of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) has revealed a culture hampered by distrust, accountability issues, and poor leadership.
The 80-page report, which the city will share with the public Monday, was authored by an independent law enforcement investigatory agency called the OIR Group, which the city has relied on in the past to evaluate police shootings. The report came at the request of Mayor Ted Wheeler, who, in March 2021, asked for an in-depth evaluation of potential political and racial biases within PPB's ranks, as well as the bureau's overall resistance to change. Wheeler's call came on the heels of 2020's racial justice protests, which sparked concerns over how Portland officers treated demonstrators—specifically people of color and those with opinions critical of law enforcement.
As described in the OIR Group's report: "The goal was to achieve a better understanding of—and to constructively address—some of the troubling perceptions about the Bureau that had developed over time, and that unfortunately seemed more pronounced than ever."
The analysis is based on data collected from voluntary surveys of 277 PPB employees (which accounts for 27 percent of the entire bureau), and interviews with PPB management, city commissioners, other city staff, and retired PPB officers. The OIR Group was unable to survey Portland residents on their perception of PPB, due to "logistical roadblocks," but made up for it by including information culled from other recent public surveys on PPB.
The final report offers no definitive ruling on whether the PPB is racist or politically biased.
"Certainly, our overall impressions were more nuanced than those of Portland residents who asserted as a given that the Bureau’s culture was irredeemably racist, and that meaningful reform must begin by confronting that reality," the report reads. "Nor were we persuaded by those few PPB members who bristled at the mere mention of familiar critiques, and insisted instead that bias against them was central to the heightened dysfunction in their city."
It continues, "Unequivocally, we also came away with the understanding that troubling community perceptions about bias have a foundation in history and in dynamics that exist today, and that grappling with them constructively should be a priority."
The report outlines several attitudes within the bureau that have already been trumpeted by the Portland Police Association (PPA), PPB's union for rank-and-file officers, including officers' contempt for politicians, frustrations with the public, and general morale issues. But the analysts also critique the attitude of the union, characterizing the PPA as the tool responsible for sowing the public's distrust in the local police force.
"Unequivocally, we also came away with the understanding that troubling community perceptions about bias have a foundation in history and in dynamics that exist today, and that grappling with them constructively should be a priority."
The timing of this report is significant, as Mayor Wheeler will release his budget requests for the PPB this week. It's expected that Wheeler, who also serves as Portland's police commissioner, will propose funding more PPB positions.
In a statement emailed to the Mercury, Wheeler called the report an "insightful tool."
"In our initial evaluation of this report, Police Chief Lovell and I are both in agreement with the recommendations," Wheeler said. "Many of these recommendations are in line with my plan to refocus and reform the bureau, and have already been put in motion."
City Comissioner Mingus Mapps said that the report highlights a "lack of communication and trust" between PPB and City Hall.
"If we want to accomplish meaningful reform, we will need to do it with, not to, our police bureau," said Mapps in an email to the Mercury. Other city commissioners have yet to respond to the Mercury's request for comment on the report.
There's a lot to unpack in this analysis, which offers 28 recommendations for the city to adopt if it's serious about shifting PPB culture.
Below are the reports' biggest findings and related recommendations. Read the entire report here.
PPB doesn't consistently acknowledge its mistakes.
The report underscores historic and recent examples of racism within the PPB, ranging from the 1981 "prank" where Portland cops dumped dead possums outside a Black-owned restaurant in an act of intimidation and the 2017 “joke” made by PPB Sergeant Gregg Lewis to other officers about killing Black people, days after a PPB officer killed a Black teen. It also points to instances of what appears to be political bias within the PPB, including the time that PPB Commander Erica Hurley encouraged people to recall District Attorney Mike Schmidt during a community meeting and the early 2021 saga of PPB officers sharing information falsely accusing City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty of committing a hit-and-run because they didn't like Hardesty's critiques of the PPB.
While PPB leadership doesn't deny that these past acts were wrong, the report contends that those in charge are quick to look past them—blocking any attempt to learn from past misconduct to improve the bureau's future.
"Leadership should accordingly take appropriate opportunities to further acknowledge them as a way of ensuring forward progress," the report recommends. "Moreover, new officers should be overtly exposed to them as conduct that is no longer acceptable."
The report also points to past biased actions that PPB has taken little—if any—responsibility for. One example stems from the 2018 results of a city audit that found PPB's former gun violence team to disproportionally pull over Black drivers. Four years later, and PPB leadership still denies that this data reflects inequitable policing. Instead, PPB contends that officers were simply responding to calls for service, and argues that the public should be more outraged that victims of gun violence in Portland are also disproportionately Black.
"It is a perspective that has elements of validity," the reports reads. "Nonetheless, in our conversations with different members of the Bureau, we were struck by the vehemence with which they disputed the conclusions that were reached in recent high-profile statistical assessments."
Instead of dismissing these findings, PPB should use the audit's results to inform future training and improve bureau data collection, the report advises.
"The Bureau’s disappointment over the incorporation of new protest issues into the federal oversight plan has seemingly taken counterproductive forms."
Another example of the bureau's stubbornness to accept wrongdoing, the report finds, is how PPB reacted to the US Department of Justice's (DOJ) critique of how officers addressed the 2020 protests. PPB has been working through the terms of a settlement with the DOJ since 2014, when the feds found that Portland officers had a pattern of using disproportionate force against people with a mental illness. One of the agreed-upon terms was around officers' commitment to taking note after using force against anyone. After PPB used force more than 6,000 times against protesters in 2020—and were sloppy at tracking each instance—the DOJ informed the city that it had backpedaled on its agreement, thus extending the timeline of the settlement.
"We spoke to Bureau members who expressed frustration over what had transpired," the report reads. "The Bureau’s disappointment over the incorporation of new protest issues into the federal oversight plan has seemingly taken counterproductive forms."
Unsurprisingly, the analysts found that most PPB employees rejected the "narrative that framed the agency as racially discriminatory" and "the notion that their political views influenced their handling of specific situations or their treatment of specific groups."
PPB's poor morale is attributable to its leadership.
The report highlights officers' seemingly consistent disappointment in PPB leadership, with many arguing it was the main reason the bureau had such low officer morale. Some pointed to the high turnover rate in the police chief's office, while others mentioned the outright absence of Chief Chuck Lovell at various precincts.
The report found that nearly 60 percent of surveyed officers "did not feel supported" by PPB's senior leadership.
Yet these critiques were not reserved only for bureau leadership. Many officers expressed to analysts that they felt unsupported by Wheeler and the rest of city council. This lack of support was felt strongly in the midst of the 2020 protests.
"Many [officers] commented that the relationship between the [City] Commission and the Bureau became especially strained in the past two years and that the Commission—specifically, the Mayor’s Office—did not adequately support officers," the report reads. "On the contrary, respondents reported feeling 'betrayed' and thrown under the bus' by its own city government."
One officer is quoted in the report saying: "Stop telling us we’re racist or being unconsciously racist when we are not and try supporting us verbally with the public and stop hiding from the fact that we are good people doing good work every day."
Nearly 98 percent of officers surveyed said that city government has made their work more difficult. One interesting division identified by the researchers, however, was that officers who identified as conservative were much quicker to mention politicians as an issue impacting their work than officers who said they were liberal.
PPB appears resistant to accountability measures.
The report reviewed the city's current mechanisms for holding officers accountable, and found evidence to conclude officers don't support them.
One example: the swift rejection of the city's new police accountability commission by the PPA. The commission was formed with the passage of a ballot measure in November 2020, with more than 80 percent of voters' support.
"Within days of its electoral success," the report reads, "the concept was faced with renewed opposition from the Bureau’s labor association, which had opposed it from the outset." The PPA argued that the new program needed to be discussed with the union in labor negotiations before moving forward, and filed a formal complaint. Analysts write that, while disappointing, this response comes as no surprise.
"The PPA has a reputation and an established history of support for its members that has often taken the form of steadfast resistance to outside scrutiny of the Bureau," the report reads. "And it seems reflective of a broader impression that the Bureau itself has left with many of the people who live in the city and/or engage with PPB on a regular basis."
Another perceived rejection of oversight: Officers protesting when one of their colleagues is accused of a crime. In June 2021, Multnomah County prosecutors charged Officer Corey Budworth of fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor, for assaulting a photojournalist during a 2020 protest. Budworth was a member of the bureau's Rapid Response Team (RRT), a unit of officers assigned to respond to demonstrations. Outraged and certain that this was a political move by the district attorney, all other RRT members promptly resigned from the team in protest. This followed a press release from the PPA accusing the charges of being "politically driven."
"This was particularly disquieting as a seemingly wholesale and organized repudiation of formal accountability measures," the report reads. "The aggressive rejection of a decision by the prosecutor’s office has been interpreted as another example of an organization that closes ranks rather than supports established processes."
PPB's communication style undermines public trust.
The report points to a national shift in how police communicate with the public. Namely, the shift in the presumption that all police communications should be accepted as the unbiased truth.
"Used to setting the tone of coverage and benefitting from publicity in various ways, many departments have struggled in adapting to a dynamic in which questions are more challenging and insistent than ever, and misinformation is interpreted as bad faith," the report reads.
Analysts said they heard from officers who were frustrated about their inability to “set the record straight" with the public on certain news issues. The report notes instances of misinformation and vagueness baked into PPB press releases and news alerts, issues that sow distrust in the public they serve.
"The lack of an overarching—and widely understood—philosophy of communication furthers this impediment to effective performance."
It points to an incident in December 2021 when police reported that a woman was shot by a man (before police fatally shot that man)—when she was, in fact, uninjured. The report also underscores the recent publication of a PPB training powerpoint that contained anti-protester sentiments. The inappropriate slide show had been under internal investigation since September 2021, but PPB only chose to share information about the presentation in late January, after discovering that it was going to be made public in a court filing.
"Both incidents point to missed opportunities for transparent communication and self-assessment and were critical missteps that feed into the skepticism of [PPB]s critics," the report reads.
Analysts write that the bureau's small and inexperienced communications team could be a reason for these problems within the department. But it could also be PPB's insistence on spinning the truth to benefit their narrative.
"The larger issue may be with the challenge of balancing persuasive expression of the PPB’s 'story' against the need for both the perception and reality of accurate, transparent communication," the report reads. "The lack of an overarching—and widely understood—philosophy of communication furthers this impediment to effective performance."