Portland Copwatch
a project of Peace and Justice Works
PO Box 42456
Portland, OR 97242
(503) 236-3065/ Incident Report Line (503) 321-5120
e-mail: copwatch@portlandcopwatch.org

Despite apparent drop in some uses of force, steady and inappropriate Taser use disturbing
an analysis by Dan Handelman, Portland Copwatch, July 20, 2009; Revised July 23, 2009

Note: To read the PPB/IPR Use of Force Report, go to http://portlandonline.com/auditor/index.cfm?c=44653&a=254600
For supporting statistics from the Bureau and IPR that are not included in their report, please see http://www.portlandcopwatch.org/forcestats_2004-2009.pdf

On July 14, the Portland Police Bureau and Independent Police Review Division (IPR) put out their second joint report on police use of force. The report's first half gives police credit for following all of the recommendations made in the previous 2007 report (which used stats from September 2004 to November 2006****), and analyzes data mostly from November 2007- November 2008 in the second half. However, the report doesn't leave room for new recommendations or further discussion on how force is used against whom in Portland. Statistics released to the City's Racial Profiling Committee (RPC) after the first report was published indicated that force was being used at alarming rates against African American Portlanders, who make up 6% of the population but have 29% of all force used against them. The new statistics show no change in that racial makeup. Furthermore, the report notes that the use of Tasers has not gone down along with other kinds of force, and that Taser use is up against those with mental illnesses, who are likely more vulnerable to die after being shocked with the devices.

It is commendable that the Bureau has continued looking at these statistics, since the first report came out as an apparent response to the outcry after the beating death of James Chasse in September 2006. The Central Precinct and Transit Divisions should also be commended for lowering the amount of force they used since the previous report's recommendations were implemented.

The report is careful to compare the rate at which African Americans are arrested (25% now, 27% in 2004-06) to the use of force (29% in both reports). It does note that the 4% difference in the new reporting period is of "statistical significance" and notes that further study needs to be done to determine the cause. However, there is no recommendation nor promise that such study will occur. Even more disturbing, the pointing of firearms at African Americans, which was already a high 30% in the previous statistics is even higher now at 34%. The "point weapon only" statistics also show that more people are not ever charged with a crime (48%) after having a gun pointed at them than when other kinds of force are used (29%). It is particularly disturbing that 1366 uses of force other than pointing a firearm were reported, with 1053 incidents of just pointing a firearm--meaning if included, pointing a firearm would make up 43% of all uses of force.* Any basic gun safety class will teach that if you point your weapon at anything, you had better be ready to shoot. In other words, this is a very serious use of force, and yet not much attention has been given to it, severing these statistics to a separate part of the report.

Similarly, in 2007 Chief Sizer declared that when officers point a Taser at a person and pull the trigger halfway, illuminating a laser light showing where the prongs will hit, it is no longer considered a use of force by the Bureau. Portland Copwatch challenges the Chief to tell us what that action is, if not a use of force. The Chief's claim is that other cities do not track this number, so Portland should not either; we contend that Portland should take the lead by doing this. The "laser light only" was used over 1400 times in the 2004-2006 reporting period, or about 700 times a year. In addition, a new table shows Tasers were used 61 times on people who were not complying with police orders--a level of resistance which does not allow officers, by their own rules, to use the electroshock weapons--and perhaps another 18 times when no resistance at all was occurring. In addition to opening up investigations on these 79 incidents, the Bureau should immediately issue an order that Tasers are not "compliance tools." They are weapons that are potentially lethal. Amnesty International has documented over 350 incidents in which suspects died after being hit with Tasers. When a civilian sees an officer, arm outstretched, pulling on a trigger, with a red laser dot on their chest, the civilian does not know whether a 50,000 volt surge or a bullet will be coming their way. Since the report states it was easy to move the pointing of firearms out from other statistics, the "laser light only" should be put back onto the form and tracked as well.

Taser use against people with mental illness is also up. The old report showed that only 26% of force used against those with mental illness was Taser use (which we think was too high given the above information); the new report puts that statistic at 52%. Without raw numbers, it is hard to compare one-on-one, but the report explicitly states that Taser use is up against those identified as having mental illness.**

It is very difficult to tell how much use of force has only appeared to go down due to the change in reporting requirements. Apparently, control holds including handcuffing and those maneuvers by police to get people into cuffs, such as twisting arms up behind a suspect's back or pulling their fingers in a certain way, are not considered use of force unless they cause injury. To anyone who has had these holds applied to them, they more often than not do cause pain and make the civilian feel as though they are being injured, even if it doesn't lead to hospitalization or an injury that would be documented on the form. Therefore, use of force is now being seriously under-reported in the City of Portland. Why this decision was made without input from the public, when it would clearly make it impossible to compare the statistics from the old report to the new one, is unclear.

However, assuming there has been some drop in the raw numbers of force used, as indicated in the report, it is also significant that officer injuries have gone down. One of the officers' largest complaints about the new Use of Force directive was that they feared they would be in greater danger. So far, this does not seem to be the case. (While the PPB/IPR's solution to illustrate this point, which was breaking out injury statistics from March to February in 2006, 2007 and 2008 makes the other stats for November to November periods incompatible, it is understandable that this was done to coincide with the adoption of the new Directive in March 2008.)

Portland Copwatch continues to assert that the new Directive's general verbiage suggesting that police should use less force is undercut by the allowance for officers to use the amount of force "reasonably necessary under the totality of the circumstances." Unlike the old Directive which tied maximum force levels to resistance levels, this is a broadly subjective standard that is sure to be relied upon in court when police go out of control with violence. In other words, while the Use of Force report gives credit for the Bureau following recommendation #7, revising the force policy, we feel there is still too much "wiggle room" for inappropriate use of force to go unpunished. It is noteworthy, however, that it is now required for Portland officers to report when they see the directive being violated. We urge the Bureau to strengthen its whistleblower protection policies to encourage more such reporting of misconduct within the ranks.

It seems that the task force was once again heavily populated by Portland Police personnel; from what we can tell the only person of color on the Task Force was the IPR's Assistant Director Constantin Severe; and the meetings were not open to the general public. To their credit, the IPR's Citizen Review Committee did solicit public input to bring to the Task Force meetings; it is not clear from the report whether or how any of that input was incorporated. So again, while the Bureau should be commended for creating the report, looking at these statistics, and presumably making efforts to lower the amount of force being used, the process is still far from transparent or meeting the standards of "community policing."

Overall, these Task Force members concluded that the "intent" of the previous recommendations was met, even in cases where the actual recommendation was not implemented. For example, officers with higher than a 15% force-to-arrest ratio were supposed to be counseled, but only those meeting a threshold of 30% were talked to. The threshold has apparently been lowered again, which is good for the public but is sure to cause concern for Sergeants and Lieutenants, whose ratios are apparently higher because they mostly engage directly with suspects only in incidents when street officers need backup.

Another recommendation that has clearly been ignored with regard to public trust is the requirement to review Use of Force statistics annually (#5).*** Because the Chief changed the reporting form in November 2007, the report contains no data from the period of October 2006 to November 2007,**** making comparisons for that time frame impossible to those tracking police accountability. While each precinct or unit is supposed to analyze use of force data every six months, those reports are not being made public and once again transparency and public trust are not being served. (In addition, the semi-annual reviews of "street crime units" are not taking place as recommended in #16. PCW would suggest that those reviews of complaint data, tactics, and use of force also question the constitutionality and appropriateness of the missions of these units, such as the "Service Coordination Team" and its secret list of repeat offenders.)

Similarly, the report shows that the Use of Force Review Board (UFRB) held hearings on every case in which civilians were transported to the hospital after police use of force in 2008 (28 times, or once every two weeks), which is good news. However, they have made a decision to review those cases in the future annually for patterns and trends. It is not clear that such a review could result in an investigation if the hospitalization was caused by possible officer misconduct (#13).

In other places, the recommendations may have been met by "intent" but leave many questions. The Bureau states that the suggestions for changing the Use of Force Directive (1010.20) were all incorporated, but they do not cite the specific changes that were made (#7). The IPR reports that one of seven complaints about use of force are filed by witnesses or third parties, but doesn't say whether that is significant or comparable to other cities (#6). The requirement that officers be debriefed on any incident that triggers a use of force complaint does not explicitly state whether the civilian involved will be informed about that debriefing (#9). The Employee Behavior Review will apparently consider all complaints against an officer, but the "trigger point" that requires the Review is not spelled out (#10)--even though such thresholds existed previously in the Internal Affairs Directive.

Perhaps one of the most dubious areas addressed by the Task Force is the Transit Division. Though efforts apparently have been made to make officers "more visible, engaging and approachable" (#15), there are not a lot of specifics given on how they will be using less force. The IPR's Citizen Review Committee identified a serious problem in 2008--that officers from other jurisdictions working for Tri-Met are under Portland Police supervision, but are not subject to the same complaint system as Portland officers. Particularly with use of force complaints, the Task Force should have addressed this anomaly.

We also have raised objections previously and will continue to object to the term "non-lethal" being applied to "beanbag" guns and other weapons. Most other agencies and experts use the term "less lethal," since these weapons cause death less often than conventional firearms, but all possess the ability to kill.

Finally, the shift in reporting requirements aside, the report would benefit from publishing specific statistics from the previous reporting period rather than just percentage changes. It seems like the raw numbers would tell the public, the press, and the police a clearer story. On that note, Portland Copwatch asked for and received raw numbers for kinds of use of force against people broken down by ethnicity. Unlike the table provided in the report (table 12), which shows how many incidents across each ethnic group involved each type of force (where because some incidents involved more than one type of force, the numbers add up to more than 100%), these raw numbers show disturbing trends. In both 2004-2006 and 2008, African Americans were at the receiving end of 29% of "physical control" and Taser uses, and 22% of blunt impact strikes. Force against African Americans as a percentage went up in pepper spray and impact munition use, from 31% to 40% and 24% to 35% respectively. The pepper spray is more significant as it means 35 of 86 people hit with the spray were African Americans; the impact munitions were only used 17 times, but 6 times against African Americans.

Again, the Bureau should be commended for making some of these figures public, but unless these disparities are highlighted and examined, the Bureau may continue making mistakes that alienate them from the community they are supposed to protect and serve.

*-originally, we wrote there were a total of 2438 incidents excluding pointing firearms. The actual number means that pointing of guns is a greater percentage of all incidents--43%, rather than the 30% we originally cited.
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**-the Portland Mercury reported on July 21 that the raw number of Taser uses against people with mental illness was up from 87 in 2006 to 110 in 2008, or a 26% increase. As noted, this is not as serious a change as the chart implies with the doubled percentage from 26% of force against people with mental illness to 52%, but it is still of great concern.
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***-We added the phrase "with regard to public trust" because recommendation #5 technically did not require the police to publish the Use of Force analysis every year. However, it seems that a Bureau committed to transparency and "community policing" would voluntarily interpret the recommendation to include publishing the data.
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****-Originally, we indicated that the previous report covered a period including October, 2006; in fact, the original data covered the period from August, 2004 to September, 2006.
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Portland Copwatch regrets any errors or confusion caused by our earlier draft.

Analysis of 2007 Use of Force Report
Portland Copwatch home page
Peace and Justice Works home page

Posted July 20, 2009, updated July 23, 2009