September was a banner month for the Portland Police Bureau.
By “banner,” I’m referring to banner headlines trumpeting behavior that makes the Rose City’s finest look like thugs with badges. The rash of bad news, in particular Chief Rosie Sizer‘s nothing-to-see-here ruling in the death of James Chasse, prompted one reader to ask a very wise question:
“Just how much does it take before responsible Portland residents acknowledge that it is far past the time for effective, civilian oversight of the Portland Police Bureau?”
Actually, we already have civilian oversight. But you’re excused for not noticing. Apparently somebody needs to nudge Dan Saltzman and remind him that he’s the police commissioner.
The ostensible boss of the bureau had nothing substantive to say last week when Sizer announced that all but one officer escaped discipline in the case of Chasse, who died in police custody after being chased, tackled, Tasered, kicked, hog-tied and first taken to jail before anyone decided he might need medical attention.
Saltzman was absent Wednesday, attending a League of Oregon Cities meeting, when a coalition of mental health advocates showed up at City Council to ask for more post-Chasse changes in bureau policy. He seemed perplexed by new city Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade‘s decision to examine why Chasse died and why it took more than three years – sadly, that is not a typo – for Sizer’s final report.
The rest of us might ask why it took three years for anyone at City Hall to publicly wonder what was taking so long.
During Saltzman’s decade on the council, he’s earned a reputation as a fair, deliberative boss, a committed environmentalist, a zealous advocate for abused women and children. He’s also shown a tendency to disappear when any other politician would stand up and shout.
In this instance, some of that silence is understandable: Chasse’s family is suing. Nobody wants to risk careless statements that could hurt taxpayers in court.
But Saltzman could at the very least reassure Portlanders that there is an actual elected official, someone directly accountable to voters, making sure the guys with guns play nice. He could also remind those of us inclined to see red whenever we see blue that most of our police are hard-working public servants who make the best decisions they can in dangerous, difficult conditions.
Mayor Sam Adams knew all about his colleague’s quiet style when he decided not to keep the police bureau himself last year, the first time a Portland mayor has opted out of the job since Neil Goldschmidt.
Let’s give Adams the benefit of the doubt and assume his decision to hand off city government’s single most important duty, protecting its people, had nothing to do with the skeletons rattling in his closet and everything to do with his own lack of interest and other goals.
But at this point, what in the world could possibly be a bigger priority? The bungled effort to find a new home for the Portland Beavers? The ding-dong-it’s-finally-dead attempt to build a convention center hotel with the public’s credit card?
Saltzman was the fallback choice when Sizer refused to work for Commissioner Randy Leonard. He’s done the best he can with a job he didn’t necessarily want. After years of city indecision, he pushed ahead with precinct mergers. He prodded the bureau to fill vacancies with an increasingly diverse pool of applicants. Although he was slow responding to a series of gang-related shootings last winter, he’s been an attentive presence at gang task force meetings.
And to his credit, he did meet privately with one advocate on Tuesday to hear the Chasse-related recommendations. “He listened and nodded his head,” said Dan Handelman, who leads the watchdog group Portland Copwatch. “He said he wanted to wait and see.”
It’s a little late for wait and see. Another day, another nasty headline about cops out of control.
Here’s another solution to the mounting public perception that something is off in the bureau and no one in City Hall cares: Community policing could become a true mayoral priority.
Forget grand plans for the Rose Garden and street car lines stretching into the 22nd Century. Adams should let Saltzman off the hook and take the Police Bureau back. He should focus his creativity and rediscovered confidence – amazing how a man’s swagger returns when he’s not worried about facing state charges of sex with a minor – on demanding that boots-on-the-ground beat cop work is the norm on every Portland street.
Adams should be at roll calls, re-earning the respect and trust of officers and preaching the gospel of peaceful coexistence. He should be in neighborhoods reminding us all of the good work our police do and explaining the reforms Sizer, a steady and capable leader, has already made.
He should be out there talking nonstop about a kind of policework in which someone might well have recognized James Chasse as the local lost soul, not a potentially dangerous drug addict who needed to be run down by a crowd of large men.