Police Watchdog Lacks Bite?

From The Oregonian, April 28, 1992. Not available elsewhere online.

Sandy Herman believes civilian oversight of the Portland Police Bureau is a joke. And it’s not one people should be laughing about.

“It’s totally ineffective. It’s absolutely ignored,” said Herman, who was the first staff member hired by the Portland Internal Investigations Auditing Committee in 1982. Herman, the wife of a Portland police captain, resigned in 1990.

The auditing committee was formed by a community that felt the Police Bureau was indifferent to its concerns. But PIIAC was created without authority to conduct its own investigations, instigate its own probes of police practices or review any incident in which police officers use deadly force.

“It’s a failure because it’s not meant to do anything,” Herman said. “It’s meant to give the illusion that we will look into your allegation and we will take you seriously.”

Herman is not alone in her view.

  • Cities around the country are turning to civilian oversight boards to monitor their police. In helping communities form these groups, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Police Practices Project uses Portland and its civilian committee as an example not to follow.
  • PIIAC’s authority has been challenged from the time of its inception. Officers and their union refuse to comply with the committee’s demands for information about citizens’ complaints against the police.

The erosion of its power apparently continues. The group considered disbanding last year — a year in which police shot and wounded six people and killed four others — because so few citizens turned to it for help.

  • A number of PIIAC members have resigned, citing their frustration with the all-volunteer board. Some of those who quit felt the public expected them to be watchdogs, but said that they never had the chance because the committee had no power and little money. In addition, the committee’s enabling ordinance specifically says, “The committee shall not investigate complaints about police officer misconduct.”

The result for Portland, said John M. Crew, director of the ACLU’s Police Practices Project, is “a watchdog with no bark, no bite and, as far as I can tell, is never fed, either.”

Although he acknowledges PIIAC has had its problems, Portland Police Chief Tom Potter believes there is no need for outside, civilian oversight of the Police Bureau.

Potter said the bureau has a good relationship with the community and has earned public trust. He said that any police misconduct is monitored well by the bureau’s Internal Investigations Division, the district attorney, the grand jury system — and as a last resort — by people who file lawsuits.

“I think first of all you’ve got to find out is there a problem and does it need fixing?” Potter said. “In terms of investigating the police, I haven’t heard any allegations that somehow or another we have done something improper or weren’t investigated properly.”

PIIAC was created by a citywide vote in 1982 after community concern grew over police investigation of citizen complaints.

A special commission headed by Dr. Frances Storrs studied the way the bureau investigated complaints against officers. In July 1981, the commission recommended a committee be formed to monitor the bureau’s Internal Investigations Division.

The proposal gave PIIAC no authority to conduct investigations, no power to demand that police or citizens testify before it, and no authority to do much of anything other than review Police Bureau paperwork.

Six months later, Police Commissioner Charles Jordan appointed a task force to study the idea. A few months later, the city was rocked by the “possum case.”

In that incident, two police officers on night patrol in North Precinct killed an opossum and threw it on the doorstep of the Burger Barn, a black-owned restaurant.

The act offended many people who felt it was racist. The officers, who called it only a prank, were fired. But an arbitrator reinstated them, saying their punishment was excessive. The reinstatement enraged the community even more.

Then-mayor Frank Ivancie, who enjoyed considerable political support from the Police Bureau, vehemently opposed the formation of PIIAC. But the City Council created it over his objections.

The police union was adamantly opposed to outside review and immediately began a petition drive to refer the issue to voters.

The PIIAC proposal passed by 677 votes on Nov. 4, 1982 — despite the police union outspending proponents of the measure by a ratio of more than 9-to-1.

The bureau and the police union fought PIIAC at every early turn, brawling over the kinds of records that committee members would be allowed to read, which complaints could be investigated, and whether the committee had the right to subpoena witnesses.

John Ransom, a former PIIAC chairman who resigned in 1988, said that some of the early members wanted to see the group abolished. Some were blood relatives of police officers.

It was, by most accounts, a group that aggravated many and accomplished little. The aggravation level is lower today, but the level of accomplishment is essentially unchanged.

Cities throughout the country are moving toward establishing independent organizations to monitor the actions of police and to conduct their own investigations into the use of force and into allegations of abuse and misconduct.

Of the 50 largest cities in the country, 32 now have some form of civilian review, according to an ACLU study. Seventeen were established in the past six years.

“We’ve always pointed to Portland as the way not to do it,” said Crew, director of the ACLU’s Police Practices Project.

Crew said that Portland’s system only gives the oversight committee the authority to read police investigatory paperwork and report to the City Council if it thinks something is amiss.

That kind of system, Crew says, is inherently weak.

“If you have no access to witnesses and can conduct no hearings, it’s very difficult to be a meaningful form of civilian oversight,” he said.

In Portland, police shootings are investigated on two fronts.

First, an officer who shoots and kills or wounds someone is interviewed by homicide detectives. Those investigators also talk to any witnesses and write reports for the district attorney and grand jury. The grand jury, which reviews all police shootings, determines if a crime was committed and if the officer should be charged.

Second, the Police Bureau reviews the shooting to see if general orders or department policies were violated and whether the officer showed good judgment. Officers can be disciplined or even fired.

But the bureau’s review does not involve the Internal Investigations Division. And because PIIAC can only review complaints handled by Internal Investigations, the citizens committee never has the authority to look into fatal shootings.

For example, the Jan. 16 accidental shooting of 12-year-old Nathan Thomas, a death that police say was the greatest tragedy to hit the bureau, was never reviewed by PIIAC.

Potter argues that it was subjected to citizen review when it was sent to the grand jury.

But the grand jury review is limited to whether a crime was committed and if the officer should be charged. The grand jury never is asked whether the shooting was necessary or unavoidable.

Only once in the bureau’s 123-year history has the grand jury returned an indictment against an officer. In 1969, Patrolman Steven M. Sims was charged with first-degree murder after he shot and killed an unarmed fugitive. The fugitive was hiding in bushes outside his home and made no attempt to flee when Sims confronted him. And as it turned out, Sims was having an affair with the fugitive’s wife.

Sims was found guilty of manslaughter, sent to prison and dismissed from the force.

“Anyone who has practiced criminal law understands and recognizes a grand jury is essentially a tool of the district attorney,” said John Ransom, the former PIIAC chairman who works as a defense attorney. “The district attorney is the only person who presents evidence to the grand jury.”

Police Bureau officials remember no one other than Sims ever disciplined for a shooting.

Donald Van Blaricom, a private police consultant and former police chief of Bellevue, Wash., said that it’s rare for police to be charged or disciplined when they shoot someone.

“That’s pretty typical of most police departments,” he said. “They are more likely to discipline them for the misuse of a baton or a flashlight,” he said.

Without clear evidence — like the amateur videotape of Los Angeles police beating motorist Rodney King — it’s difficult to make a charge stick.

The department, the officer, commanders, district attorney and city attorneys all line up behind the officer, Van Blaricom said, to protect themselves from a lawsuit.

“In Portland, today, there truly is no oversight of Portland police activities other than a citizen going to court and filing a lawsuit,” Ransom said.

Gretchen Kafoury
is the least senior member of the City Council and therefore the one given the job of overseeing PIIAC. Given its limitations, Kafoury said, the committee is now a governmental dinosaur.

Kafoury said the committee’s original charter of reviewing Internal Investigations paperwork and not conducting probes of its own may now be too narrow.

Richard E. Paul, the committee’s current chairman, said that he accepts PIIAC’s limitations and says the group serves a purpose. He said that committee members are doing a good job by just giving people a chance to be heard.

“We don’t try to second-guess (the police) or look at the facts again. We are not a judicial agency.”

Charles Jordan, who was a city commissioner when PIIAC was created, has noticed the committee’s influence eroding.

“Each year its powers and influence and credibility have diminished considerably,” Jordan said. “It was a good concept that has been watered down.”

But would Jordan — who is currently head of the Portland Parks Bureau — change it now to a stronger public body?

Not necessarily.

“If you really want them to have credibility, then they need to be an independent body with their own investigative unit,” Jordan said.

Jordan said that Potter opened the bureau more to the public during his 1 1/2 years as chief. Potter created the “Chief’s Forum” to bring 24 community leaders in every other week to discuss police issues and policies. He’s pushed for public meetings to explain bureau positions after incidents like the Nathan Thomas shooting.

And Potter has scheduled a community meeting May 30 where he and others will talk about the recent spate of shootings and deadly force.

Potter also draws high marks for his commitment to community policing — which makes the public an active partner with police in combating crime.

Jordan said with Potter as chief, “I don’t know what I would propose.”

Potter said that he believes the bureau’s relationship with the community has improved, that people think police are accountable and current systems meet the need for oversight.

“But then again, it’s not me who has to be satisfied,” he said. “It’s the public.”

The Police Bureau may, indeed, be more accountable under Potter. But critics say that attitude could change under a different chief.

Also, Potter’s Chief’s Forum is precisely that — people picked by the bureau to come in and advise it.

Civilian oversight can take many forms.

Each city should find the system that works best for it, said Robert G. Bailey, director and chief investigator for the Berkeley, Calif., Police Review Commission.

“You can’t just take a model commission and kind of clone it to other jurisdictions,” he said. “Frankly, there is no substitution for the quality of leadership in any given department and how mobilized the community is.”

Around the country, most of the oversight committees seem to fall into one of five categories:

  • Auditing. This is the system used by Portland and by the city of San Diego. Citizens review the thoroughness of police investigations of officers. The citizens have no power to investigate complaints.
  • Monitoring. In addition to auditing the police internal investigation, the commission can comment on the intended discipline ordered by the police chief. The Investigative Review Board in Hartford, Conn., is such a system.
  • Appeal. Citizens can appeal police decisions on discipline to a civilian agency. This is done in Toledo, Ohio, and in Toronto.
  • Civilian inclusion. Police complaints are investigated by people hired by police, and the citizen commission recommends the form of discipline, if any. Chicago’s Office of Professional Standards is one such system.
  • External review. An office separate from the police department accepts, investigates and resolves citizen complaints and makes recommendations to the mayor or some other public official. This type of system is in use in Cleveland; New York; Flint, Mich.; Cincinnati; San Diego County, and San Francisco, where the Office of Citizen Complaints has authority to hire and fire police chief.

The newest civilian oversight committee in the country is San Diego County’s Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board. Eileen Luna, executive director, said the types of agencies can be divided into two groups — those that conduct their own investigations and those that don’t.

Committees that conduct inquiries typically hire experienced investigators, like those who work for attorneys, and give them special training. Their investigations generally take place while police are doing their own internal probe.

For these kinds of committees to work, committees have to be given true subpoena power, where officers can be forced to appear before the committee and testify, said Don Casimere, president of the International Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

The best way to do that, he said, is put it in the police union contract as a condition of employment. Officers who refuse to appear or refuse to testify can be disciplined and even fired.

“I have not come in contact with any police department that openly welcomed the idea of citizen oversight,” Casimere said. “Most police unions and most police managers would rather not have it, but it’s something that is not going away.

Renee Mason, who was PIIAC chairwoman from 1989 to 1990, believes Portland’s system of monitoring police is weak and that keeping an eye on officers is important.

“I did a ride-along with an officer,” she said. “It was a real eye opener for me.

“It gave me clearer understanding of what those individuals go through. But at the same time . . . these are people to whom society gives the guns,” Mason said.

Civilian oversight, she said, tells police “You’re the ones we want to have the guns, and if you’ve got the guns, by God, we want to make sure you are handling it responsibly.

“This is our army, and we invest them with a lot of trust.”