Portland police officers are getting hurt during encounters with suspects because they doubt police brass, in light of a federal justice inquiry, will support them if they use the amount of force they deem appropriate, the police union president said.
Officer Daryl Turner, who leads the Portland Police Association, said he’s addressing officers at precinct roll calls with this message: “Take care of yourselves. Protect yourselves. Remember, Department of Justice officials are not professional police officers. You are.”
Turner’s remarks offer the first detailed look at how the rank-and-file are responding to the city’s negotiated settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The agreement calls for reforms to Portland police policies, training and oversight. It stems from federal investigators’ findings in September that Portland police engaged in a pattern of excessive against people suffering from, or perceived as suffering from, mental illness.
In recent weeks, several officers have had to be treated at local hospitals, including one who required stitches for a head wound after struggling with a suspect who pulled a dagger on police.
The union, in particular, has criticized the chief’s proposed changes to bureau use of force and Taser policies.
The draft policies say officers must recognize that people in mental health crisis require a “specialized response,” and officers must ensure confrontations are resolved with as little force as practical.
The policies stress the need to de-escalate encounters and resolve problems “with less force than the maximum allowed.” The bureau also expects officers to justify each use of force, noting that police can face discipline for unreasonable use of force.
“It’s giving the officers cause for pause, because they’re thinking in their mind about the DOJ,” Turner said, “and they don’t think they’re going to get the support of their leaders.”
“What these policies do is make a dangerous job more difficult,” Turner added.
Dave Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said no one wants to see officers injured. But Fidanque thinks Turner is jumping to conclusions.
“I think taking a couple of incidents and trying to draw a general conclusion from them is pretty dangerous,” Fidanque said. “You’re never going to eliminate all possibility of injuries either to officers or suspects.”
He said Turner’s “protect yourselves” remarks at roll-calls revealed a “shade of the thin blue line” and a belief that only police can judge their actions.
In contrast, Fidanque applauded the bureau for drafting new use of force standards, saying it shows the bureau is taking steps toward “trying to avoid injuries to everyone involved.”
Multiple officers were hospitalized for injuries in the last month.
On Oct. 30, for example, Officer John Billard suffered two broken ribs, a bruised lung and head wound requiring five staples after a man pulled a dagger and shoved officers. Police had confronted the man as part of an investigation into a possible drug offense or car prowl downtown.
On Nov. 12, a 41-year-old man was arrested, accused of knocking Officer Jakhary Jackson in the back of the head with a glass beer mug when the officer warned him not to jaywalk. The blow knocked Jackson to the ground. He required three staples for a head injury.
On Nov. 18, officers investigating a silent alarm at a North Portland dental office confronted a suspect by the building who appeared intoxicated. When the man refused to remove his hands from his pockets, three officers grabbed his arms, and a struggle ensued. The suspect swung a fist at one officer and kicked another in the chest when he was placed in a patrol car.
In the wake of the violent skirmishes, Portland Police Chief Mike Reese sent out a video message, telling officers that their safety is his top priority.
“I know you are keenly aware of the Department of Justice settlement discussions and have concerns about what that means to our policies, training and practices surrounding use of force,” Reese said in the video. “I want you to know that I support your daily work in the tough situations that officers respond to and the need to use reasonable force to take people into custody or to keep our community safe.”
The police union president dismissed the chief’s Nov. 8 video as falling short.
“They don’t need that,” Turner said recently. “They need their chief of police to give them some direction.”
Until the federal agreement is signed in U.S. District Court, Turner said, the chief needs to be clear with officers: Will their actions be judged based on their current training and policies, or based on the city’s agreement with federal justice officials, and drafts of revised police force and Taser policies?
On the same day Reese put out his video, Turner complained in a police union newsletter that the city reached its agreement with the Justice Department without input from officers. Because the changes affect discipline and officer safety, Turner argued, they must be negotiated with the union.
“The PPA will take all necessary steps to preserve its collective bargaining rights,” Turner wrote on Nov. 8.
Mayor Sam Adams, who serves as police commissioner, said he had anticipated the union’s demand to bargain, and the city is prepared to discuss any union request.
Fidanque said he thinks officers have a legitimate need for “clearer guidance on what they should or cannot do.”
“What I hope officers will take away from the DOJ agreement is, there’s an opportunity for officers and the leadership of the bureau and the public to all get on the same page,” Fidanque said, “so officers will know that when they act, they’ll have the community’s support.”
City Attorney James Van Dyck said he’s awaiting word from federal justice officials on exactly when they plan to file the negotiated settlement in court, which city officials hoped would happen by years-end. The bureau also has been seeking public input on its policy changes.
“We got a lot of comments in. We’re taking a lot at those,” VanDyck said. “My guess is there will be further revisions.”
Turner said he shared his concerns with the chief and city attorney on Tuesday. “We’re cautiously optimistic our concerns were heard.”