The police union calls for a vote of no confidence in the chief and a commissioner, while news events repeatedly raise a very different question
At a rally outside Portland City Hall on Tuesday morning, intended to drive the effort for a police union vote of no confidence in Police Chief Rosie Sizer and Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman, members of the Portland Police Association wore T-shirts reading, “I am Chris Humphreys.”
For the Portland city attorney, already involved in a liability lawsuit featuring that officer, hundreds of police officers claiming his identity couldn’t be an encouraging sight.
Nor was it encouraging for Portland residents hoping for some sense that the police understand what’s at stake here.
Fundamentally, this is not about whether the police union has confidence in the police chief. The real question is whether Portlanders have confidence in their police.
This is not a judgment in the current controversy over Humphreys’ shooting a 12-year-old, 160-pound girl with a beanbag shotgun while another officer tried to get her under control, for which Saltzman placed Humphreys on administrative leave. It’s not even a judgment on his role in the 3-year-old death of James Chasse Jr. while in police custody, for which Saltzman recently ordered Humphreys suspended for 80 hours. A lawsuit against the city in that case is pending, while the related case against Multnomah County, which involved a sheriff’s deputy, was recently settled for $925,000.
The issue is whether Saltzman, an elected city commissioner put in charge of the police by Portland’s elected mayor, and Sizer, named police chief by the mayor, have disciplinary authority over the police — or whether, as police union chief Scott Westerman charges, the only question is whether officials and citizens stand with the police.
In front of City Hall on Tuesday morning, Westerman warned the city’s elected officials, “If you do not, you have put political expediency in front of law enforcement.”
Yet Portland citizens might have a different idea about who works for whom — and might think that Westerman has it reversed.
The past decade has seen a considerable number of incidents raising questions about police behavior — inevitable in any city of Portland’s size. Several of them have involved the death of Portland residents, others ended with the city paying considerable sums in damages. We have seen repeated efforts to recraft the review structure. All together, they raise questions about our system for dealing with charges against officers, especially considering that the union-negotiated arbitration system frequently overturns any penalties.
Concerning Saltzman’s suspension of Humphreys, Westerman commented Tuesday, “We all know when this goes to arbitration, we’re going to get it back.” He regarded this probability as validation; others consider it part of the problem.
On Nov. 27, the police union starts its no-confidence vote on Saltzman and Sizer, expecting to report its results Nov. 30. “If it comes back at 97 percent of our members saying they have no confidence,” asked Westerman, “how can that be an effective leader?”
But that might be the wrong question, or at least, not the only question.
The deeper question is whether Portland’s police officers are accountable to the city’s elected and appointed officials — or the other way around.