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The volunteer committee tasked with reviewing Portland citizens’ complaints about the cops has one job: to examine police misconduct through an independent, outside lens. Or, as Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty recently described, a “regular-person perspective.”

A police misconduct case currently before Portland City Council, however, has raised concerns that this unique police accountability body is toothless.

Portland’s 11-person Citizen Review Committee (CRC) offers the final opportunity for a citizen who has reported officer misconduct to get justice. Only after a member of the public files a complaint against an officer with the Independent Police Review (IPR)—and only after an investigation finds the officer did not break the Portland Police Bureau’s (PPB) regulations—can a citizen present their case to the CRC in the form of an appeal.

If the CRC votes in favor of the citizen and the PPB refuses to settle, the case heads to city council for a final ruling. This has only happened three times in the IPR’s 22-year history—the most recent being this month.

The May 2 council hearing was based on a seemingly cut-and-dry case: In 2017, Kristin Bowling was issued a citation for jaywalking after she stood in the street to photograph an armored PPB truck entering a police station. Bowling believes she was arrested in retaliation for photographing officers. Officer Neil Parker, who was driving the truck, told investigators that “he noticed the expression on [Bowling’s] face... she was expressing disapproval for his activities.” Based on this observation, Parker said, he decided to write Bowling a citation.

Bowling’s retaliation complaint was investigated by PPB’s internal affairs office who, along with Chief Danielle Outlaw, believed Parker was right to arrest Bowling. The CRC, however, sided with Bowling, pushing the case to a council vote.

“The question is not whether the appellant was technically violating the law, the question is whether [Parker’s] decision to issue the citation was motivated by her lawful activity,” said CRC Chair Kristin Malone, speaking before council.

The CRC’s decision is based on nearly a year of interviews, after-work meetings, and detailed analyses of PPB’s internal rules. Yet in the hearing, Mayor Ted Wheeler seemed puzzled that the CRC did not simply agree with the police that reviewed the case.

“Officer [Parker] denied retaliation on the record,” said Wheeler, somewhat irritably. “There’s nothing else in the record that suggests he’s saying that, ‘It was because I was biased’ or ‘Because I didn’t like her.’ I’m struggling to figure out how you can make this leap.”

Hardesty pushed back. "When people are investigating themselves, of course they believe that they do nothing wrong,” she said.

CRC Vice Chair Candace Avalos was confused by Wheeler’s response. “Well, of course [Parker] wouldn’t say he was intentionally retaliating,” Avalos told the Mercury after the hearing. “That’s why there’s an investigation.”

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Wheeler decided to delay the council vote on Bowling’s appeal until May 16, when all city commissioners will be present. It’s unlikely Wheeler will change his mind. But the May 2 hearing left CRC’s leaders with bigger concerns. As the city’s uniquely transparent police accountability board, does their opinion count? Or are they just a flimsy facade to a system meant to protect the police?

“If the mayor just expects us to agree with the police,” Avalos said, “what’s the point?”

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