With her shoulders hunched and eyes narrowed, Mayor Vera Katz pounded her gavel. “I can clear this room,” she declared, addressing a murmuring crowd of approximately 80 people who gathered at City Hall last Wednesday afternoon to talk about pending changes to the city’s police oversight committee. Over the past year, a growing number of activists and ordinary citizens have embraced the mechanism of the police oversight committee as a means to tame a police department that many believe has become unruly, abusive, and arrogantly headstrong.
Wednesday’s meeting was a final opportunity for citizens to comment on proposed changes to Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee (PIIAC), a city-ordained group of citizens that reviews allegations of police misconduct. In mid-June, City Council will vote on adopting a series of proposed changes to PIIAC.
In recent years, a chorus of critics has emerged, complaining that PIIAC is the toothless lap dog of the police. Last summer, with demands that PIIAC be deputized with real powers to investigate allegations of misconduct and to discipline wayward officers, a group of citizens set in motion a laborious process to overhaul the committee. Over the year, a wide variety of opinions and demands emerged–from requests that the number of PIIAC members be reconsidered to pleas that PIIAC be given power to ask questions. (Currently, PIIAC relies on Internal Investigation reports, a process that many believe is akin to asking a fraternity brother to squeal on his mates.) That process of considering changes and overhauling PIIAC is finally limping towards its conclusion, but many believe that the proposed changes fall far short of their expectations–and that nothing will change at all.
The first speaker–a 40-ish, balding man–pointed blame for the death of Jose Mejia-Poot, a Mexican immigrant who died while in custody, to the lack of substantial oversight of police procedures. He implied that the man’s death was the direct responsibility of the mayor, who oversees the police bureau. Mayor Katz instantly became agitated and pointed the gavel at the man. “That’s enough,” she shouted.
The man continued, saying he had no faith in her ability to reign in the police. When several members began to applaud, Katz again slammed down her gavel and confronted the man. “Do you know how many [police] officers I’ve dismissed?” she asked, intoning that she is a no-nonsense boss. When the man shook his head, Katz fired back that perhaps he should do more research before confronting her.
At that point, several members of the audience began jeering that she had only disciplined eight officers during her tenure. Again, Katz slammed her gavel down. “I will clear [the room],” she threatened.
Over the past several years, frustration over the lack of a substantive oversight committee has welled up behind a blockage of legalese, bureaucracy, and so-called policy issues. In 1984, Portland was a pioneer in setting up an independent oversight committee; but since then, the concept has failed to mature, say critics. They point out that while other cities like Minneapolis allow a citizen committee to fully and freely investigate allegations of police misconduct, PIIAC enjoys few real powers and largely defers to the investigations by Internal Affairs.
Disappointed that City Hall has failed to promise real fundamental changes, a ballot measure has emerged. Proposed by the members of the Police Accountability Campaign, the measure seeks much more dramatic changes, such as the power to subpoena testimony from officers. Many of the speakers on Wednesday urged City Council to reject the proposed changes, which, in turn, would set up an opportunity for the matter to be decided by voters in the next election.
Information about the proposed changes, the pending ballot measure, and a comprehensive review of PIIAC can be found at www.portlandcopwatch.org; to urge city council members to vote one way or the other, call (503) 823-4000.