Is Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman Losing Community Support?

From the Portland Mercury, October 14, 2009

It’s been almost a year since Mayor Sam Adams announced he would give City Commissioner Dan Saltzman oversight of the Portland Police Bureau, instead of taking the job himself. Adams’ choice to put the bureau in Saltzman’s hands was not unprecedented—former Mayor Neil Goldschmidt put City Commissioner Charles Jordan in charge of the bureau in the late 1970s.

But every other mayor since Goldschmidt has assumed the task themselves, and where Jordan was fearless and outspoken in taking on the bureau—firing two cops, for example, who tossed dead possums at an African American-owned restaurant in Northeast Portland—Saltzman has come under heavy fire over recent weeks for his near silence over the disappointing outcome of a three-year inquiry into the 2006 death in custody of James Chasse, a man with schizophrenia.

Police Chief Rosie Sizer announced at the end of September that only one officer would be given a minor suspension—probably just a week, yet to be determined—over Chasse’s death, telling the media that the officers’ use of force in the case was “acceptable”. Saltzman stayed silent on the inquiry, saying only that Chasse’s death was regrettable. Days later, City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade announced she planned to hire an independent consultant to review the investigation, including why it took so long.

The city is continuing to fight a lawsuit brought by Chasse’s family, with city employees barred from commenting directly on it until an expected trial next March.

Saltzman was widely viewed as Adams’ compromise choice for police commissioner after Chief Sizer effectively threatened to quit if the mayor’s first choice, Randy Leonard, was appointed to the job. Leonard warned at the time that Saltzman would face “firm resistance” in any efforts to reform the bureau. Some now feel Saltzman has fallen short.

“Our city administrators and leaders have demonstrated they lack the political will to enforce accountability on this issue,” said Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, calling along with other mental health groups for the three officers involved in Chasse’s death to quit at a press conference last Thursday, October 8. “We have more confidence that the officers will voluntarily resign than that the city will terminate their employment, and we hope they do.”

Meanwhile the Reverend Doctor LeRoy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance criticized the city for giving the officers only a “slap on the wrist,” and evoked Martin Luther King Jr., saying Chasse “cries out today from the grave for justice.”

Saltzman’s office declined comment for this story last Friday, October 9, responding instead to the press conference by offering to meet with the mental health advocates in private–but they declined his invitation. Renaud says he wants to meet with Saltzman and Chief Sizer, along with the broader mental health community, at a public meeting.

“It’s time for him to start being the police commissioner,” says Renaud. “And that means meeting with the public about public issues. We’re not particularly interested in persuasion.

“If he can’t speak to the public about the public’s business,” Renaud continues, “he needs to step aside and let someone else do the job.”

Saltzman’s office declined to respond to that invitation by press time, but calls for his ousting as police commissioner have also been coming from elsewhere.

“Apparently somebody needs to nudge Dan Saltzman and remind him that he’s the police commissioner,” wrote Oregonian opinion columnist Anna Griffin in a column on October 2, calling for the mayor to take back control of the bureau. Griffin declined further comment to the Mercury.

Mayor Adams says Saltzman knew what he was getting himself into when he became police commissioner, and denies giving him the job to personally duck the fallout from the Chasse inquiry. Adams wanted to focus on the economy, high school graduation rate, and sustainability, he says—adding that crime in Portland is “as low as it was in the 1960s.”

“When I sat down with Dan to discuss being police commissioner I reiterated that this would be a very difficult job, very controversial,” says Adams. “He was up for the task, and he knew about the inevitable controversies.”

“I have no intention of taking the bureau from Dan,” Adams continues. “He has my full support as police commissioner.”

Saltzman will face a race for reelection next May, but is yet to file for the office.

UPDATE: As the Mercury went to press, Saltzman issued a statement through his chief of staff, Brendan Finn. “I would like to establish an ongoing public dialogue with the advocates, experts, and the police bureau as to how we can address these concerns in the future,” he said.

OUR COMMENT – On October 8, we wrote and offered to host Dan Saltzman and Rosie Sizer at a public meeting. We have yet to hear back from them.