Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer spoke to the city’s Human Rights Commission’s Committee on Police and Community Relations last night.
The Portland Human Rights Commission’s committee on police relations took up a high-profile use of force incident last night at its meeting.
At the meeting, the term “the community” was present on nearly every committee members’ lips. During the meeting, members of the committee noted that community was unhappy with the handling of the incident. They noted that the community was uneasy with the police, and that the community had a hard time distinguishing between the police union and the police bureau.
Portland Police Chief Rosie appeared before seven members of HRC’s Community and Police Relations Committee and Maria Lisa Johnson, the director of the city’s Office of Human Relations, to discuss the incident and how the bureau was handling it.
Last month, Officer Christopher Humphreys, a controversial officer who was disciplined for his role in the death of James Chasse, caused a firestorm when he shot a 12-year-old girl with a beanbag gun at close range at MAX stop.
Humphreys was initially put on a desk job while the incident was being investigated, but Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman went further and suspended him. This caused the police union to stage a demonstration and hold a vote of no confidence on Sizer and Saltzman, that wasn’t released after Humphrey’s suspension was reversed.
Speaking to the committee, composed of police officers and citizens, Sizer acknowledged that there are issues with police use of force, but insisted that the bureau was making progress on them.
She explained that officers operate under trying conditions, and forming guidelines for the use of force is very difficult since it gets tied into a dizzying array of legal issues. Officers are often left with an unclear sense of when they can use force, she said.
“Unfortunately, for them that line is not very bright,” she said.
Sizer repeatedly cited a report issued earlier this year that showed that police were using less force.
However, several members of the committee expressed discomfort with how the incident with Humphreys was handled.
“In my experience, whenever the police do something, whether it be the right thing or the wrong thing, it’s justified [by the bureau],” said Patricia Ford, a member of the committee who also asked if the 12-year-old girl got any support.
Sizer said that she couldn’t comment on whether the girl got support, and explained that holding officers accountable can be complicated since there needs to be a careful review of employment case law before an action can be taken.
Darryl Kelley, a former gang member who serves on the committee, questioned whether the officer should have shot a 12-year-old girl when he was clearly bigger and stronger.
“When you think about excessive force, that’s pretty excessive,” said Kelley, who wondered out loud how much support he’d get if he shot someone.
Kelley said that the incident was a “huge step backward” for community policing.
Hector Lopez, a former United Church of Christ minister who serves as the committee’s chair, asked Sizer to comment on the actions of the police union.
Sizer described the union’s actions as “overtly political.” She also noted that the union was willing to be part of dialogue on the issue.
Stephen Manning, an immigrant lawyer and member of the committee, said that people have a hard time distinguishing between the police union and the police bureau.
Ford added that she has an 11-year-old grand daughter who asked if she would be shot by the police.
“To the community, it feels like this officer is going to do whatever,” she said.
Commander Mike Crebs, a member of the committee, said that the guidelines for police use of force, which once had clear rules for what officers could do, are being replaced with ones that use “the totality of circumstance.” He said this was a difficult transition for many officers who were accustomed to being judged on much they could bench press or how fast they could run the 100, and are now expected to show “empathy.”
Sizer also commented on the issue of accountability in the bureau. She said that officers are quietly dismissed from the force on a regular basis, but the public is largely unaware because they are lower profile. She also said that some officers worry that if “something bad happens” they’ll lose their jobs.
“Police officers react to fear with that,” she said.
Officer Deanna Wesson, a committee member, said that the officer in the incident was in a difficult position. She noted that the girl was allegedly fighting officers trying to arrest her, and hoped people would consider his perspective.
She said that women “are more flexible” and sometimes fight harder.
“If you decide to fight us, we’ll fight back,” she said reluctantly, noting the presence of television cameras.
Sizer concluded by saying that the police are burdened beyond capacity, and are routinely confronted with socio-economic and educational issues that are outside the scope of the bureau.
At the public comment period, Dan Handelman, of Portland Copwatch, said that officers who cheat or steal might get kicked off the force, but found it troubling that officers who use force against people aren’t.
He also said that the complaints are not thoroughly investigated, and that he was troubled by the amount of money the city pays out in settlements from lawsuits stemming from police use of force.
“A lawsuit comes out of our pockets,” he said.