Reaction was mixed Tuesday, a day after Portland’s city auditor sent a blistering memo to the mayor and city council members identifying “alarming lapses” in police accountability by top police command staff.
READ – City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade’s memo (PDF, 72KB)
Police Chief Mike Reese, whose two top appointees were identified in the memo as taking inappropriate action to either halt an internal affairs inquiry or duck an interview by an independent investigator, had little to say.
He refused to answer specific written questions about the issues raised.
“The City Council is currently weighing the proposed changes brought forth by the Auditor,” Reese said in an e-mailed response. “We will continue to have thoughtful discussions with the members of City Council in the coming weeks to answer any questions they have.”
Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, who serves as police commissioner and is out of town this week on a work-related trip to China, has read Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade‘s memo, his spokesman Dana Haynes said.
“He is aware of her memo. He has access to her memo,” Haynes said. “He has no comment on her memo.”
But City Council member Nick Fish said he understands the auditor’s frustration and wants to work to revive council action on the auditor’s package of reforms.
“We need to implement these changes to improve accountability and get this back on track,” Fish said.
In the Monday memo, Griffin-Valade said she felt that the mayor and council didn’t recognize the “urgency” and need to move forward with changes to strengthen Portland police oversight, as sought by the U.S. Department of Justice. While Reese testified before the council last week that the current oversight system “is working very well,” the auditor said that’s not the case at all, highlighting several lapses in accountability by two high-ranking police supervisors in the last six months.
“There’s been very recent activity within the high command of the Police Bureau that has caused our office concern,” said Constantin Severe, director of the Independent Police Review Division.
Under the auditor’s proposed reforms, the Independent Police Review Division’s civilian investigators would be able to question officers directly and compel their testimony. The division would be granted oversight of the bureau’s high-ranking civilian supervisors. The Police Bureau would have to inform the Independent Police Review Division whenever an internal affairs inquiry was halted, and the chief would have to explain in writing to the mayor every time he did not follow a Police Review Board’s recommended discipline for an officer.
The chief opposed each of these proposals, which were drafted specifically to address problems that occurred under his watch.
Fish said he believes there’s consensus on the council for most of the proposals, except two or three and would hope that any outstanding questions are cleared up over the next three weeks.
City Attorney James Van Dyke is expected to provide a legal opinion to commissioners by Friday whether allowing civilian investigators to question officers directly and compel their testimony requires mandatory bargaining. Fish said he wants to make sure a proposed speedier 180-day timeline for completion of internal affairs inquiries is realistic.
“These reforms are important. I regret the auditor felt in any way that the council was being cavalier about these proposals,” Fish said. He added that he was somewhat confused about the proposals, due to lack of communication between the mayor and commissioners before last week’s hearing.
“What is clear is the auditor, the IPR director, the mayor and the police chief need to get in a room and work out their remaining differences,” Fish said. “Let’s fix the problem. Let’s go forward. I think we need to show some urgency.”
If no agreement can be reached, the council must act regardless, he said.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz said she was disappointed that the auditor has chosen to take her proposed police oversight reforms off the council agenda.
Fritz said she supported many of the proposed reforms, but doesn’t think they go far enough and suggested a stakeholder committee be created to examine them further.
Fritz said she, too, was “perturbed” by the chief’s characterization of a system that’s working well and his opposition to changes that would allow the Independent Police Review Division to conduct meaningful independent inquiries. The division is under the auditor’s office, not the Police Bureau.
“That’s why we have an IPR system and hopefully they can hold supervisors accountable,” Fritz said. “I believe there’s value in further discussion.”
But Severe described the proposed reforms as straightforward, meant to address the demands of the U.S. Department of Justice. Federal justice officials called for a package of reforms to police policies, training and oversight after an investigation last year found Portland police engaged in excessive force against people with mental illness.
“The things we’re asking for in the (city) code changes are pretty basic,” Severe said. “It’s like oversight 101.”
Severe said he opposed convening a a stakeholder’s committee on the proposed reforms, which have been discussed for several months and agreed to as part of a pending settlement with the Justice Department.
“For everybody to try to act like we’re in Casablanca and this is a surprise, is not fair, ” Severe said. “The way we’ve done oversight in Portland is based on personality, but you can’t have oversight based on gentleman’s agreements.”
Instead, convening a stakeholder’s group to address the broader question of what type of police oversight the community wants would make more sense, he said.