Watching the police – in its first year of operations, Portland’s innovative independence police review division is off to a good start

Unsigned opinion editorial, The Oregonian, May 7, 2003

Critics said it would be a lapdog for the Portland Police Bureau. And it’s true that, in its first year of operations, the Independent Police Review Division hasn’t found the occasion to do much snarling. Nevertheless, we think the division has demonstrated that there’s a happy medium between being a poodle and being a pit bull.

The true test of the division, in some ways, will come late this summer, with the much-anticipated release of a report on 32 police-involved shootings and two deaths in custody between 1997 and mid-2000. The recommendations that emerge from that report, and the degree to which Portland police heed the advice, will establish whether citizens will truly get their money’s worth from the $589,000 division.

Police should be open to hearing some new ideas, in light of the police shooting this week that took the life of 21-year-old Kendra James. Police said she was shot after she resisted officers and tried to drive away in a car that had been stopped for a “routine” traffic violation. James’ family has expressed great skepticism about the actions of police, however, and early reports suggest they may have reason to do so.

Admittedly, many police shootings fall into the terrible crevasse that Merrick Bobb, director of the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center, has described as “lawful but awful.” Bobb is coordinating Portland’s report on police shootings.

If life-and-death complaints are perhaps the most pressing to resolve, one of the most common complaints over the past year was a simple one — rude behavior. Across the nation, this is a frequent and typical complaint, according to Richard Rosenthal, the former prosecutor who heads the Portland division.

The division’s 168-page annual report, provided to the Portland City Council on Tuesday, sorted police complaints in just about every possible permutation, drawing rare praise from Mayor Vera Katz, who called it one of the best reports she’d ever seen. Commissioner Erik Sten, who hasn’t always been a fan of the police, said later that his general sense is that the division is “doing an excellent job.”

Some tension was evident between the managers of the division, however, and the nine-member Citizen Review Committee, set up to hear complaints. Clearly, some in the group are straining at the administrative leash. And yet even these signs of friction seemed to prove critics wrong in imagining that the Independent Police Review Division could never be independent.

We agree with Sten that some friction is inevitable, maybe even healthy. Many citizens will naturally continue to look at the division as offering them a chance to vent. But Rosenthal and Auditor Gary Blackmer, who oversees the division, are more interested in being quietly influential than they are in barking for the sake of barking.

One year isn’t really long enough to judge whether their approach — their hope to be a different sort of police watchdog — is yielding real results. But so far, so good.