Editorial: Performance evaluations for Portland cops ‘long overdue’

By the Editorial Board of The Oregonian, August 18, 2013

"The bureau has gone without reviews for at least two decades, a practice that can in some officers foster unpredictable, it-seemed-like-the-right-thing-to-do behavior."

“The bureau has gone without reviews for at least two decades, a practice that can in some officers foster unpredictable, it-seemed-like-the-right-thing-to-do behavior.”

That performance evaluations could return to the Portland Police Bureau is not less than great news: for police officers, their supervisors, and all citizens who depend on competence and consistency from those charged with protecting civil order. Negotiations between the city and the Portland Police Association, the union representing police, showed a deal was near in a public session Thursday.

The union predictably wants any performance assessment of officers to play no role in officer discipline or promotions, a demand that is unrealistic if not mystifying.

But even if the union wins such an assurance, and it appears it will, evaluations can elevate and warrant performance by making known precisely what’s expected of officers — and where they succeed and fail. Those things alone would advance the work of the bureau by setting clear standards against which an officer’s on-the-job efforts can be measured, particularly in contested moments of crisis.

This is not a new subject. The bureau has gone without reviews for at least two decades, a practice that can in some officers foster unpredictable, it-seemed-like-the-right-thing-to-do behavior. Some efforts at improving accountability dragged along. As far back as 1993, city auditors had urged the bureau to install a computerized Employee Intervention System that would track every officer’s use of force and help flag problem officers — but it wasn’t until 2005 that such a system was designed and not until 2011 that it went online.

Individual performance reviews, meanwhile, have come last.

To his credit, Chief Mike Reese more than a year ago said he wanted to institute quarterly assessments of each officer in which only the fourth review would end up in the officer’s personnel file — this, apparently, to avoid the hammer effect of too much top-down oversight that, ironically, can undermine an officer’s capacity to exercise his or her own good judgment. Reese had argued the first three review sessions would allow the officer “to provide input regarding their performance and give an opportunity for correction, if needed.” That made sense then and still does.

But in last week’s negotiating session, The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein reported, it was clear both the police and union view performance evaluations as helping officers know what’s expected of them “and not have to wait to learn of their deficiencies at a disciplinary hearing.” That makes even greater sense now.

A concern expressed last week by two sergeants on the union’s executive board was that performance evaluations would increase supervisor workload and force sergeants to interact more with their direct reports. Really? That revealing interactions are lacking now is a problem for which performance evaluations could surely offer a free, corollary solution.

The police and union brass should shake hands and adopt long-overdue police performance evaluations. Doing so will deepen work already underway to make the Portland Police Bureau fully a culture of accountability.