NEWS ITEM January 31, 2002(revised)
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Dan Handelman or Diane Lane
Portland Copwatch 503-236-3065
AUDITOR PROPOSES TO SHUT CITIZENS OUT OF REVIEWING
POLICE SHOOTINGS AND DEATHS IN CUSTODY CASES
City Auditor Gary Blackmer recently proposed code changes to Portland's new civilian police oversight system. The Auditor's proposal undermines the community's and City Council's call for public scrutiny of police shootings and deaths in custody. While the public expected the members of the new system's Citizen Review Committee (CRC) to be involved in reviewing the cases and that public hearings would be held, the new proposal allows for neither to occur.
The changes are expected to go before City Council on March 6.
In February 2001, following a seven-month process by a Mayor-appointed work group, Council directed the Auditor to propose code for a new citizen police review board. In June 2001, Council approved most of the final proposal, despite community opposition to the Auditor's plan.
It became clear, however, that Council explicitly wanted the review board to have the ability of reviewing police investigations of police shootings and deaths in custody which Blackmer strongly opposed. The Auditor claimed that he didn't have the expertise to do such a thing. The approved ordinance creating the new Independent Police Review Division (IPR) clearly instructs Blackmer to propose code regarding the review of those cases by December 31, 2001.
On January 14, 2002, two weeks late, Blackmer released his new proposal. The Auditor proposes an outside "expert" to review deadly force cases and recommend policy issues to the CRC. The CRC would only be involved after the recommendations had been passed on to City Council and the Police Bureau.
The proposal indicates, as the community suggested, that individual officers will not be targeted for scrutiny during those reviews--that only the quality of the investigation and policy and training issues will be examined. However, it leaves the review of the actual case files in the hands of this "expert," who may not even be a resident of Portland, whereas the CRC members are from Portland and will have the skills to review police investigations for the exact issues sought by Council.
Judging by the Auditor's selection of a former deputy district attorney for the IPR director's position and that the IPR's deputy director and two intake persons are ex-police, the expert most likely will have a law enforcement background. This could make objective review of deadly force cases impossible.
Blackmer apparently is willing to dismiss community concerns that, despite numerous layers of review cited by the police, there is no point at which deadly force cases truly come under the scrutiny of members of the community. Grand Juries, police investigations, internal police reviews and district attorney reviews are all done out of the public eye, with either untrained citizens (in the Grand Juries) or potentially biased parties doing the reviews. As for civil lawsuits, not every shooting victim's family has the money or resources to bring the City to trial, and not every lawsuit calls for changes to policies or training. (See Mayor's work group Majority Report pages 45-47 for more information.)
Furthermore, despite Council's and the community's strong position that public forums be held regarding such serious cases, the Auditor once again opposed them. Blackmer declares in his proposal that, "Public forums for every case would consume large amounts of staff resources, and pending litigation could prevent constructive participation of some agencies." These are specious arguments at best in a city with an average of only 8-10 shootings cases per year and for an agency whose mission should be to determine the best way for Portland to learn from any mistakes that are made.
We would remind the Auditor and Council that the last part of Section 1 of the IPR ordinance states that the City is committed to: "... responding in such a way that services are improved and trust in government is restored."
Certainly shutting the volunteer citizen component of IPR out of the review process of deadly force cases and only allowing them to consider policy issues identified by an outside "expert"-- in addition to excluding the public--will not restore trust in government.
One only has to look at the large hue and cry raised by the community after the police shooting of Jose Mejia Poot in April 2001. The public had many valid concerns about the death of this young man whose only "crimes" included not having enough money for bus fare, not speaking and understanding English well and suffering the effects of epilepsy.
The process of investigating such cases is secretive and closed to the public, and yet the community has a right to hold its public employees, especially those granted special powers such as the use of deadly force, accountable. Public forums will allow the community a voice in looking at policy and training issues and in being assured that investigations are conducted appropriately. Since the CRC is already planning public forums for other policy issues, there is absolutely no reason why they can't include forums for deadly force cases. The amount of resources needed for these forums, considering that they can use facilities provided by the community, would be minimal especially considering that they could potentially prevent the further loss of life.
At the behest of the Latino Community, Chief Kroeker and the City set up several public events to discuss what happened to Mr. Mejia Poot. If the Auditor's proposal were changed to allow public hearings, such ad hoc events would be unnecessary, as the IPR would have a mechanism in place to allow for public input.
It is important to distinguish the public forums we are recommending here from public inquests, which would be looking at the accountability of the individual officers involved. It is also crucial that the Council and the Auditor understand that having members of Portland's civilian population review the cases themselves, looking at the actions through the lens of the laws, police directives, and the community's standards of acceptable behavior, is more important than an "expert" review. We do agree, though, that a review of past deadly force cases is appropriate.
The CRC could present its findings to the public, solicit feedback on their suggestions, accept other community concerns, and forward final recommendations to Council and the Bureau in another public setting.
It is bears repeating here that the one police shooting case scrutinized by the former review board, PIIAC, suffered from an inadequate investigation and raised serious questions about how such cases are handled (PIIAC Monitoring report, second quarter 1997).
In a final note of discouraging behavior, IPR Director Richard Rosenthal informed the Citizen Review Committee members at their January 29 meeting that he wanted their input--to help hire the outside "expert" recommended in the Auditor's code proposal. Rosenthal did not ask these specially selected and trained community members to help finalize the proposal (written over the holiday season and during the time the CRC was preparing its first cases for review) nor did he seek their opinion about it. Rosenthal indicated that the plans to hire an "outside expert" were already in motion.
Such apparent private deals behind closed doors at City Hall only further exacerbate the public's distrust of government, and thus the Auditor and the IPR director have managed to do exactly the opposite of what they were expected to do.
For more information contact Diane Lane or Dan Handelman at Portland Copwatch 503-236-3065.
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