People's Police Report
Shootings & deaths
SWAT MY BACKSIDE, THE SERT TEAM¹S BEEN DISBANDED!
Early this year, an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) complaint was made against Portland's Special Emergency Reaction Team (SERT). The EEOC complaint came shortly after the first female SERT member resigned. In March, Chief Kroeker deactivated SERT and appointed seven police officers to conduct an in-house investigation (Oregonian, March 20 & 27).
SERT was founded to deal with dangerous situations, such as serving search warrants, responding to hostage situations, escorting dignitaries, and containing Portland's deluge of snipers (Oregonian, March 30). The team consists of 28 officers from throughout the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) who receive year-round paramilitary training and a six percent pay increase.
The EEOC complaint stems from rites-of-passage rituals for new SERT members and probably concerns the sexual nature of the hazing.
In addition to sundry gender-neutral rituals--such as getting the team symbol (a bat) tattooed on them, cleaning the dishes and weapons of senior members, hauling their equipment, and singing songs--new members also have to wear dresses, carry purses, and sometimes perform strip teases.
These activities were known and tolerated by ranking officers for years, and are now being excused by some as silly "locker room" or "knucklehead stuff," as Officer Rafe Cancio described them in the March 24 Oregonian. Many people eager to exonerate SERT have shifted the focus to the work of the officers, who Oregonian columnist Steve Duin characterized as "dark knights [who] fly out of the Batcave when the bat signal appears in the night sky" (March 27).
This exculpatory position may be popular, and not just among the media. However, the logic bandied about to excuse wrongdoing is a non sequitur and absurd. First--the logic goes-- because the officers "are bursting through doors in dangerous situations" (Officer Cancio) and have "the courage to face a bullet" (Duin), they should be permitted to coerce new members into servile and deprecating acts, even if the coercion is illegal and unethical. Second, that because of this degradation, they will build esprit de corps.
The conduct of the SERT officers (and excusing it) has four deleterious effects. First, it shows that the police are essentially the same as "gangs" and "cults"--where group identity is achieved through initiation rituals and main-tained by the inculcation of new members.
Second, it sends the message that police are above the law.
Third, it perpetuates denigration of the female body: clothing and accessories associated with women symbolize inferior positions and are used to humiliate people. (Also, how will police interact with transgendered officerstreat them like devalued bodies or like members of the team?)
Fourth, it creates systemic bias: the system itself is set up to discourage or bar certain people from entering it. You have to be on the force for three years before becoming eligible for SERT. Everyone who applies, therefore, will probably know ahead of time that he or she will be hazed. If you don't want to be subjected to the humiliation, you won't apply, regardless of your police talents. Given the sexually demeaning nature of the hazing, women may be especially discouraged from applying.
Kroeker deactivated SERT, saying it was for the safety of the officers, since they may be "distracted" by the inquiry (Oregonian, March 30). Deactivation was opposed by the police "union."
Kroeker characterized the hazing as internal misconduct and the investigation as an administrative matter, ignoring the recommendation by Norm Costa of the Chief's Forum for an independent investigation (Oregonian, March 27).
The internal investigation is continuing. Yet Kroeker in effect exonerated the unit by reinstating it in May 2001, seven weeks after the deactivation.
During the seven weeks of deactivation, one incident--a suicidal man barricaded with a gun-- prompted PPB to call a back-up special unit from Washington County. The situation was resolved before they arrived.
pop-up: A transgendered officer filed for stress pay after fellow cops left demeaning notes in his locker (Oregonian, July 11). See PPR #23 for information on recent police sensitivity training regarding transgender people.
Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.