THE HEAVY POLICE response to some of Occupy Portland's largest protests last year—symbolized by an outcry over missing police nametags—has inadvertently shined a spotlight on a glaring hole in Portland's system of police accountability.
Cops who ride to our rescue from agencies outside the city are technically exempt from Portland's limits on when and how its own officers can use force. They're also exempt from civilian oversight mechanisms in Portland that, while still imperfect, are among the most stringent in the state, according to city officials.
Essentially, according to a Mercury review of the "mutual aid" agreements that govern the Portland Police Bureau's relationship with outside agencies, an out-of-town cop can commit an act of misconduct that would get a Portland cop fired—and conceivably keep right on working.
"That's an issue," says Mary-Beth Baptista, Portland's Independent Police Review (IPR) director. "We don't have oversight of them, and we don't have guarantees that their home agencies have as stringent an oversight system as we do."
The agreements are starkly clear on that point. If an out-of-town cop working in Portland roughs someone up, or worse, that officer will be investigated and punished only so far as her employer's union contracts and policies allow.
And if an out-of-town officer sees a Portland cop doing something wrong? The same contract provisions mean Portland investigators can't compel that outside cop to testify.
That concern—which has long troubled watchdogs—emerged publicly amid complaints about missing nametags and forceful baton swinging by some of the dozens of outside cops who'd been called in first for Occupy Portland's November 13 park eviction and then again for Occupy's bank shutdown protests on November 17. Portland cops are required to wear nametags at all times—many officers from outside agencies aren't.
In part because of those complaints, Portland Police Chief Mike Reese, as of press time, was planning to address the police oversight Citizen Review Committee (CRC) on Wednesday, January 11.
But that fundamental tension—non-Portland cops policing Portlanders—plays out on the streets on a much smaller scale every day.
TriMet's Transit Police Division, charged with keeping order along the transit agency's sprawling system of bus and rail lines, is led by a Portland police commander but includes officers from across the region. And Portland police routinely sit on task forces or investigate specific crimes with outside officers.
Michael Bigham, a CRC member, says the issue has been "on our radar for a couple of years." He remembered a 2006 case involving a Portland transit cop accused of harassing a man on a MAX platform. A Milwaukie cop who watched the incident unfold wasn't allowed to speak to Portland's internal affairs detectives.
Bigham then raised the fatal 2006 beating of James Chasse Jr.—which involved a Multnomah County sheriff's deputy also assigned to the transit detail.
"The county's attorney wasn't allowing the deputy who was there to testify to internal affairs, and held up the whole case for over a year," Bigham says.
Bigham said those cases spurred minor improvements of how the transit division handles complaints. A 2008 agreement he shared with the Mercury gave the transit division's commander more power to process minor complaints, like rudeness, but still defers to outside agencies' policies for more serious investigations.
The most the transit commander can do, officials said, is kick a troublesome officer off the unit—which doesn't mean that officer will be punished—or reassign that officer to a less-desirable job. Commander Mike Crebs, currently in charge of the Transit Police Division, did not return messages seeking comment.
But those provisions, as tepid as they are, still apply only to the transit division. The broader agreement that applies to all the other instances when out-of-town cops might be needed—like big protests and natural disasters—is silent.
Representatives from two outside agencies, Beaverton and the county sheriff's office, both said they take major complaints seriously and generally cooperate with Portland.
Baptista's office was unable to provide by press time an accounting of how many complaints it has referred to outside agencies in recent years. But she did say the IPR routinely misses out on complaints because out-of-town cops' failure to keep their nametags visible.
David Woboril, a deputy city attorney who handles police issues, said Portland City Council has pushed before for outside cops to follow the city's more stringent rules. But, he said, there were too many "incompatibilities between various jurisdictions" to navigate.
"It's a huge problem," says Bigham, a former Port of Portland cop. "They aren't responsible to the city. They say, 'We'll brief them on the way Portland does it.' But they aren't held to that. And they don't train on it."