IN A MOVE cheered by police accountability advocates, a disciplinary panel has come down hard on Sergeant Kyle Nice—one of the officers involved in the death of James Chasse Jr.—finding Nice "in violation" of bureau policy after he allegedly menaced a motorist with his gun during an off-duty road-rage confrontation last year.
The city's five-member Police Review Board (PRB), including three police officers, sided with motorist Neil Ruffin and sustained accusations that Nice "inappropriately" cursed at Ruffin during the altercation in Washington County on April 3, 2010, and "exacerbated an already tense situation" by drawing his weapon.
"The bureau directive requiring members to conduct themselves in a diplomatic and professional manner extends to their off-duty conduct," Lieutenant Chris Davis wrote in a letter on the findings faxed to Ruffin's attorneys last week. "The PRB found that Sergeant Nice had other, more appropriate options."
Ruffin filed his complaint with the city's Independent Police Review in June—two months after the spat first found itself splashed across news pages. It started outside a Chevron at SW Allen and Scholls Ferry Road, with Nice—in a truck with his six-week-old child—cursing at Ruffin because he thought Ruffin had cut him off.
Nice later told a Washington County deputy that Ruffin followed him. When both men finally stopped their cars, Ruffin reported seeing Nice exit his truck "with a pistol out" and that "the barrel was pointing right at him." Right after, Nice displayed his police identification and dared Ruffin to "go ahead and call the police." Which he promptly did.
The only facet of Ruffin's account that the police bureau didn't uphold was the claim that Nice had specifically pointed his gun at Ruffin. Commander Vince Jarmer, citing "independent witnesses," said Nice "did not point a firearm" at Ruffin.
Nice has 30 days from the review board's decision to appeal to the city's Citizen Review Committee.
Meanwhile Ruffin's attorneys, Greg and Jason Kafoury, have filed a lawsuit against Nice and the city, seeking $195,000 in damages. They argue the city remains responsible for Nice's actions, even though he was off duty, and that police bureau officials, by taking a light hand to previous use-of-force cases, have let officers like Nice feel "above the law."
Nice, besides earning opprobrium for his role in Chasse's 2006 death, also was accused in 2007 of menacing a protester inside a jail cell. And last year the Oregonian reported that a whistleblower within the bureau was reassigned after raising concerns with bosses about Nice.
The city has argued it should be removed from the case. In court documents cited by the Oregonian, Nice's attorney, David Prange, blames Ruffin for the latest incident, arguing it was his decision to follow Nice that sparked the fight
Having a police disciplinary panel sustain a citizen's complaints has been exceedingly rare, but that finding has ticked up in recent years after bureau officials, amid community outcry, changed the rules to make it easier to find cops out of policy. After just one complaints was sustained from 2002 through 2007, there were two in 2008 and two more last year, says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch.
"First of all, it was the right choice to make in this case, because he was obviously out of line," Handelman says. "But it's also showing there's been an uptick in the system."