Mike Reese might have been mayor; for now he’d rather be the face of police reform

By Denis Theriault, The Portland Mercury, Jan. 16, 2013
Chief Mike Reese

Chief Mike Reese

The thought was hard to escape. If life had gone just a little bit differently—if the feds had waited to crack down on Portland cops for years of rough treatment of the mentally ill, if Occupy Portland hadn’t sprouted right when it did in 2011, if last year’s mayoral election hadn’t shaped up as a frantic fundraising race—Mike Reese might still be sitting down with me.But he wouldn’t be in uniform.We’d be a few blocks away from his spacious office on the 15th floor of downtown’s Central Precinct. We’d be on the third floor of city hall—in the mayor’s office.

That isn’t, of course, what came to pass. Reese, who became chief in May 2010, only briefly chased the job eventually won by Charlie Hales. He bowed out just early enough to keep things from being too awkward when Hales officially became, as of this month, Reese’s boss. And now? Reese says he wants to stay right where he is—joining, if Hales lets him, the ranks of Portland’s longest-tenured police chiefs.

That won’t be so easy. Though he could choose at any point to float off into a young retiree’s life of guitar practice, youth sports coaching, and running, Reese will instead guide the police bureau as it enters into its most tumultuous chapter in decades.

Federal reforms will force new limits in how officers use force, fire Tasers, and interact with mentally ill people—a potentially unsettling shift for the rank and file that’s already sparked tension with the police union, the Portland Police Association (PPA). Money is tight, raising the specter of job cuts. And police accountability groups, despite a palpable opening of the bureau under Reese, still rail at an institution they see as too insular and self-interested to ever create real change.

The chief talked about all of it during a wide-ranging interview earlier this month. Responses are slightly edited for length and clarity.


MERCURY: Let’s start with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) settlement. The court process is obviously still unfolding, but the federal judge overseeing the agreement has also said the city and the feds are free to privately implement whatever they want while waiting for his blessing.

REESE: We’re moving forward on critical issues irrespective of what happens at the courthouse. We’re forming a behavioral health unit—selecting officers and creating an advisory board. We’re working on training for crisis intervention officers and the selection process for those folks. We’re going to move forward as quickly as possible, being mindful that there is a process. We want to get the advisory board in place and have them help us design some of the training.


Who are you recruiting for that panel?

I’ve met with the head of the [local chapter of] the National Alliance on Mental Illness [NAMI] and some of their constituents. We want Cascadia and Central City Concern and Transition Projects to be part of that, and other treatment providers, too.


How close is the crisis intervention team to launching?

We had 55 people apply. We’ll take everybody who meets the standards. So if we have 55 officers who want the job, and they have no performance issues and they’re hard-working and their supervisors think they’re right, we’ll train them all.


What will be the policy changes on use of force?

We want to move forward on the Taser policy. We want to make sure our officers are trained on recent court rulings and community expectations. We are at the final stages of getting feedback from the Portland Police Association and the Department of Justice. Then we’re going to start training on it. And our overall use of force policy? Same thing.


What are you hearing from PPA President Daryl Turner? He’s been critical of the process.

The PPA was frustrated that they weren’t at the table during our negotiations with the DOJ. But the DOJ was very clear that conversations were confidential and between the city and the Department of Justice. We recognize there might be labor contract implications, and that’s written into the agreement.


Some changes, like assigning sergeants to go out to do hands-on use of force investigations, happened months before the settlement took shape. But you told community groups you wanted to wait before tightening the bureau’s Taser policy. How did you draw that distinction?

With the Taser policy, we had a lot of conversations with community groups. So that took a while. And then there were some court cases before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that we were waiting for, to give us guidance on overall Taser policy. That happened probably in July or August. By then we knew the Department of Justice findings were going to come out. They were telling us it was going to be soon, so we said let’s wait on what happens with that before moving forward.


The deal calls for a new medical facility where officers can drop off people in crisis. It’s supposed to open this summer. I’m not sure that’s going to happen.

Some of those things are out of my control.


How did that get into the settlement?

Both the Department of Justice and the police bureau sought a different model than the one we have. The DOJ had looked at other cities that had a single location to drop people off. We used to have that model. It worked very well for us, so we strongly advocated for it.


The county pretty recently opened its own Crisis Access Treatment Center. How well has it been working?

I don’t know. It doesn’t work for us. We’ve never taken anyone there.


What about it isn’t working?

They have procedures against it. I can’t take anybody there.

[Asked for comment, Multnomah County spokesman David Austin clarifies that police are free to take people in crisis to the CATC, provided they call first to start the admissions process. “The police absolutely have access to the CATC and to other critical mental health services designed to help people in crisis. Because we’re all partners. This is a community issue, and we all have a stake in figuring out the best ways to serve anyone a mental health crisis.”]


The mayor has repeatedly stressed the need for a “culture change” in the bureau. What comes to mind when your new boss says that about an organization you’ve run for nearly three years?

He heard from a lot of folks in our community who want the Portland Police Bureau to be in sync with their values. You know, these are challenging times for police organizations around the country, because as crime has fallen, the work that officers do has fundamentally changed.

As I have said since I became chief, our officers have to have better relationships with social service providers than they do with the jail. Homelessness and drug addiction, poverty and mental health issues are not problems easily solved by society, much less law enforcement.


Has the bureau’s new training advisory committee started meeting?

I don’t know if Bryan Parman, the training captain [and also president of the city’s other police union, the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association], has made final selections or not.


Will you release their names?

Absolutely. We had, I think, 41 people put in for it. I didn’t look at all 41 résumés. But I saw the list and thought it was a great group. We were hoping we would get nine to 12 people to participate. Obviously a group of 41 is hard to manage. But I told Bryan I don’t want nine or 12 happy people and another 29 who are pissed off at me.

Let’s take this opportunity to reimagine what we thought about the training advisory committee. So we’ll have three different subcommittees looking at defensive tactics, our patrol tactics, and looking at, maybe, firearms or Tasers. And you have a smaller executive committee. We would let people pick which area they were most interested in. I’m hoping everybody who put in will get to participate.


And, let’s confirm: Despite initial reports, the meetings will be open?

The meetings will be open. If the committee decides there’s something confidential to review, then it can close the meeting. But otherwise the meetings will be open.


Let’s talk about your relationship with the PPA. Daryl Turner has said the DOJ reforms are already causing injuries, citing an unusual spike in hurt officers late last year. Is he correct?

I haven’t seen any of the recent injuries tied to the settlement agreement. One, the agreement hasn’t been finalized yet. It’s in the court process now. Certainly officers now are, I think, considering it. They want to know what our Taser policy will be, where it will end up. And our force policy, where will that end up. They want to be trained so they can be in sync with court rulings around Tasers and use of force. Those officer injuries occurred because we interacted with people who were violent and intent on hurting us and the community.


And you don’t foresee injuries being an issue when the settlement is finalized?

All those injuries came in a very short amount of time. We’ve had a couple of months since then. Things seem to be moving along as they always have. Use of force is down. We just had our most recent report for 2012, and force incidents have continued to drop. Our officers continue to be very thoughtful, and judicious, in how they approach their job. Force is very little of what we do. In a city of 600,000 people we use force on average twice a day to take someone into custody or enforce the law. It is a quarter of a percentage of all contacts. It’s only 3 percent of all arrests.


Daryl Turner also has come out and accused you—after Sam Adams challenged an arbitrator’s reinstatement of Ron Frashour, the officer who killed Aaron Campbell—of lying and conspiring in the case. He’s attacked Lieutenant Robert King, formerly your top spokesman and a co-author of Frashour’s training review, implying he wasn’t truthful during arbitration. What’s it like being in the same room with Turner?

Daryl and I get along very well. There’s always going to be tension between labor and management. He has a role to play. He has a bully pulpit as the elected union president. Some of it’s because we are in a contract year, so he’s positioning for a contract. You’ll have to ask Daryl why he’s messaging things that way. Certainly, just on a personal level, Daryl and I like each other. We get along very well.


So when he says those things about you, those strong statements he’s put out in the press, that doesn’t…

Well, that’s in the press. I don’t know if he has said them or not.


Yes, but he’s also written them. He’s put them out in the union newsletter.

I disagree with his characterizations of the arbitration process. Certainly Robert King is one of the most respected people in this organization, a person of high integrity and ethics. I stand behind his work on the training review. Robert did an exceptional job. It’s interesting that no one is picking a part of the training review and saying it’s wrong. They’re going after the process. The training review, if you read it, is spot on. It is a very accurate reflection of the issues in play in the Frashour case.


You mentioned the media. You’re alluding to the fact that reporters may not shade things correctly.

I don’t mean that. I just mean that Daryl will say something, and different media sources pick that up. You know, controversy sells papers. I respect the fact you guys have a job to do, and a little tension between labor and management doesn’t hurt things.

We are both on the same page in terms of keeping our officers safe, and doing everything we can to train our officers. There is a process that gets us there. And that process, because of the federal investigation, was a little compressed. We tried to get the policies done quickly. We may have not followed the best process at times. At the end of the day, Daryl and I really agree that we want the members of the bureau to be safe and well trained. We both agree we have exceptional officers here.


Which reporters do that the most? I fully realize you might be looking in my direction.

The media can create a perception that government isn’t working. And it really matters that you get the story right. If we are doing something wrong, and you want to outline whether or not we’re doing our best work, I’m okay with that. But I don’t think it helps to create controversy just to create controversy. Does that make sense? I have a responsibility to this community. You have a responsibility, too. You have to provide balance. If it’s there.

Sometimes it isn’t.



Charlie Hales has told me he won’t declare—during the budget process—that the police automatically will suffer less than other bureaus. What does a 10 percent cut for the bureau look like?

Those are going to be difficult decisions for the city council. I really respect the fact that they have difficult decisions to make and balancing to do.

It can be counterproductive to community safety to close a community center—where kids have opportunities to play and interact in a positive fashion—just to save police jobs. Or to lay off firefighters to save police jobs.

And I respect the members of the council. They are good people, very thoughtful. We will provide them with information about the police bureau’s priorities, but We are not policing in a vacuum. We police in a community that has a lot of competing issues.

For example, our top priority with our school police officers is the safety of kids and staff and visitors. But our second priority is to help kids graduate. That has very little to do with our mission as a bureau, but everything to do with the future health of the city and long-term public safety issues. If we can get kids to graduate and become productive members of society, then they’re not in the criminal justice system. We’re all about looking at long-term ways to reduce people’s intersection with the criminal justice system.


It sounds like you’re at least contemplating the possibility of layoffs.

I don’t know if it’ll get to layoffs. We may have vacancies we don’t fill. There are some opportunities to look at other cuts. In the past we’ve paid for some functions at the county. The county may have to pick those up. We fund a couple of deputy district attorneys. We pay for identification techs who work in the jail. We’ve got the Hooper Detox Center and the CHIERS service. Those are all areas that elected officials can work through.


Some reports have come out, recently, charting racial disparities in police statistics. The most controversial looked at the bureau’s traffic and pedestrian stops. But a lot of people were heartened when, at a community meeting where those stats were revealed, officers actually said that yes, maybe, racism might be a factor in police work. Do you agree—and does that merit more introspection?

It does, and also the fact that there is a disparate impact on people of color throughout the criminal justice system—both as victims and as people who are incarcerated. We have to look at that impact, but it crosses so many different lines. You look at schools. Kids of color—there is a disparate impact in the discipline process there. You look at graduation rates. It’s everywhere in society.

It’s not just in law enforcement. And I really think it requires us to take a very frank look at everything we do with an equity lens.


The bureau is improving how it collects and tracks data. Will that lead to answers?

Yeah, I mean, certainly you want to look at that. Because that can help you question why it looks that way. But, um, you know, sometimes the answer is obvious. You look at gang violence right now. Some 75 percent of the victims in gang shootings are African-Americans. That is a disparate impact. Most of the gang problem in Portland involves African-American gangs. So we have to ask ourselves as a community why a young person of color sees more hope in joining a gang than staying in school. Certainly, because of the role we play in law enforcement, we need to be at the forefront of that discussion.


Only two people died last year as a result of officer-involved shootings. Other shootings obviously also happened, but that number is down. What’s changed?

With officer-involved shootings, again, we are a city of 600,000 people. They fluctuate. Last year we had six. Before that we had four. The year before that, six again. It goes up and down. They are such a small number that it’s hard to say it’s going this way or that for any specific reason. You have to look at larger trends.

Nationwide, if you look at us in terms of population, we are at the lower end of major cities in terms of shootings. If you just look at the metrics of it, the drop in our force numbers has been significant over the past five years. Not just officer-involved shootings but in broader categories where there’s enough data to actually get a sense that this is changing the culture of the organization.


I was reminded of something that emerged in the transcript of the Frashour arbitration hearing. You said, “We don’t have a right to shoot him. He never displayed a weapon. He didn’t take any offensive action for the officer.” That’s a strong standard others have taken umbrage with. Officers don’t think that’s realistic. It also could apply to some of the other police shootings last year. Is that the lens through which you see discipline?

All of these situations, you have to look at them individually. Specific to Aaron Campbell, and not any other incident, you had a young man who had not committed a crime, who had not threatened to harm anyone except himself, who hadn’t displayed a weapon, and who was running away from the officer. So all of that goes into the totality of the circumstances that I weigh when I look at whether that shooting was justified. My answers in arbitration were specific to that set of circumstances.

In other circumstances, we will look at those on an individual basis.


So if an officer is reading those remarks in the paper, on our blog, on the union newsletter, they shouldn’t assume that it applies to them?

Yeah, again, officers have a duty and a responsibility to protect themselves and the public from imminent danger. It’s hard to sit in hindsight and look at those incidents and judge them—but I have to. It’s my job. I respect that officers have to make split-second decisions. And I think we make really good decisions in the vast majority of cases. In the Campbell case, the officer didn’t make the best decision.


The mayor has said he doesn’t support the ongoing court fight against Frashour’s reinstatement. Right now, he’s not on active duty. Will that change under Charlie Hales?

That’s a question for the mayor.


That’s not something you’ve discussed yet?



If he asked you to do that, would you?

I respect the arbitration process. The city entered into it with the PPA in good faith.


The arbitrator said he should be on active duty. So if Hales agrees, then…

At this point the council and the mayor have made a decision. I work for the mayor, and I’m going to follow his direction.


Hales said pretty early that he wanted you to stay. And it’s January, and here you are. Has he laid out any goals for you? You’re eligible for retirement.

Now why did you have to go and say that?


I’m just asking. Are you here to help him get on his feet? Or do you want to see this through longer than you actually have to be here?

I really believe that stability of leadership through this organizational change is critically important for the bureau and the community. I serve at the will of the mayor. I have a civilian boss, and I give him my best advice and I follow his direction.

But I would like to stay for a few more years, and the management team I have up here, I hope, can stay with me. I believe this is one of the longest tenures, since I’ve been a police officer, of any chief’s office.

It is two and a half years for all of us, and that’s a long time for a group of leaders to stay in place. I feel like I’ve got a team, with [Assistant Chief] Eric Hendricks and [civilian director of operations] Mike Kuykendall and [Assistant Chief] Larry O’Dea, who are just superb. I really appreciate the fact that they are willing to keep at it.


One last question. Will you run for political office again?

I have a great job.

[Laughter erupts. Reese’s current spokesman, Sergeant Pete Simpson, chimes in with: “Did he ever run for political office before?” Reese replies: “Yeah, exactly!” Reese, in late 2011, had set up a fundraising committee to run for mayor and was reaching out to endorsers and donors, but decided against formally filing papers.]


People don’t consult [political adviser] Mark Wiener just to consult Mark Wiener.

I am very humbled by the opportunity to serve. And I really like our new mayor. And the council. I respect every one of them. This is going to be a really good year.