In police argument, words flying like beanbags

from The Oregonian, December 4, 2009

Normally, in dealings with police, the fewer words the better.

Especially for kids, “Yes” and “sir” are pretty much the useful limits of conversational vocabulary.

But over the past few months, lots of words have surfaced in the arguments over the operations of Portland police. Some of the phrases are likely to be memorable, especially since none of this is going away any time soon.

Two weeks ago, for example, Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman overruled Police Chief Rosie Sizer on the administrative response to Officer Chris Humphreys‘ shooting a resisting 12-year-old girl in the thigh with a nonlethal beanbag shotgun. Sizer wanted to put Humphreys, previously involved in the death of James Chasse three years ago, on administrative duty, but Saltzman overruled her and put Humphreys on administrative leave, which involved temporarily taking away his badge and gun.

The police union then led a march of hundreds of cops and supporters through downtown, ending at City Hall with a declaration that the union was taking a vote among its members on their lack of confidence in Sizer and Saltzman. Monday, hours before the result of the vote was to be announced, Saltzman overruled himself, going back to Sizer’s judgment of administrative duty instead of his call of administrative leave.

But, Saltzman explained, it was not because of union pressure, but something much simpler:

“I didn’t fully understand the difference.”

He had, he explained, been police commissioner for only a year at the time, and didn’t have all the details down. Yet, somehow the difference is clear to a lot of people who have never been police commissioner at all.

This raises some entirely new questions about the episode:

What did Dan Saltzman know, and when did he know it?

And does he know it yet?

Still, Saltzman’s statement was considerably stronger and more ringing than the response of Mayor Sam Adams when his police force went marching through his city:

We’re just still waiting to hear it.

Fortunately for the commissioner, he’s not the only memorable phrasemaker involved here. Police union head Scott Westerman, rejecting complaints that the beanbag shotgun is supposed to be used from at least 10 feet away, offered his own explanation of the rules:

“Ten feet to the torso; the extremities are fair game.”

Fair game?

In or out of season? Are there any kind of weight or antler limits?

And should Portland police leaders really be referring to Portland citizens with hunting metaphors?

To Westerman, of course, the whole issue is pointless, since there is no question of police wrongdoing: “It’s easy to try to blame police when the facts are obscured and with the realization that there is, in fact, no one to blame.”

So everybody just knock it off.

Unfortunately, there are sometimes problems with police actions, which brings us to a quote that might be remembered by all sides here, from Multnomah County attorney Agnes Sowle, this past summer:

“We believe this is a good business decision for the county and for the taxpayers of Multnomah County.”

Sowle’s quote was on the occasion of the county settling its part of the Chasse misconduct lawsuit for $925,000. The lawsuit against the city, likely to be larger because more Portland police were involved, is still working its way through the courts, and police marches through downtown are unlikely to affect it.

Which brings us to the shortest and most vivid statement of the episode, printed on the T-shirts of the police marching through downtown: “I am Chris Humphreys.”

A settlement of $925,000, times 922 sworn members of the Portland Police Bureau, would equal a city liability of $852,850,000.

This can make you hope that the T-shirt statement, like some of the others, might be classified as memorable –but not exactly true.