Portland Copwatch
a project of Peace and Justice Works
PO Box 42456
Portland, OR 97242
(503) 236-3065/ Incident Report Line (503) 321-5120
e-mail: copwatch@portlandcopwatch.org

While Revealing Important Information and Making Useful Recommendations
an analysis by Portland Copwatch
April 25, 2007

On April 24, the "Independent" Police Review Division (IPR) and the Police Bureau released a "Use of Force Task Force Report." In reality, the document is a "Use of Some Force Report," because it doesn't address the use of deadly force, including the number of times police pointed their weapons at people.

As Portland Copwatch has pointed out regarding the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC) reviews of shootings and deaths in custody, unless a review is done on the entire continuum of force, you are doing a disservice to the City of Portland.

The nine-member Use of Force Task Force which created the report consisted of five members of the Police Bureau (two Assistant Chiefs, the training division captain, and two Sergeants), two staff members of the "Independent" Police Review Division (IPR), and two members of the IPR's Citizen Review Committee (CRC).

Given the makeup of the Task Force, a few of the 16-plus unanimously agreed-upon recommendations are surprisingly strong. Within recommendation number seven, three such recommendations are: defining what is a "reasonable" amount of force, directing officers "toward the goal of using lower force options when appropriate," and requiring officers not to put themselves "recklessly" into a position that allows them to use force, then justifying its use. The last recommendation follows a policy created in the wake of Officer Scott McCollister shooting Kendra James which currently only applies to the use of deadly force. Though McCollister was not disciplined for shooting James, he was called on the carpet for the tactics that led him to have most of his body inside a car, struggling with a suspect as she put the car into drive. Because poor tactical decisions were not at the time against Bureau policy, McCollister's 180 day suspension was overturned by an arbitrator.

What's interesting about this incident as it relates to the report is that the Use of Force forms studied for the report were created after the Kendra James shooting, as part of the CPORT (Community Police Organizational Review Team) task force in 2003. One of the key elements of that group's recommendations was to track the number of times officers point their weapons at people. This is another reason the lack of statistics on deadly force is a disservice to the community.

Along those lines, this report, like the PARC report, dismisses the significance of any racial disparity in use of force. In this case, the authors hide behind the assertion that "a meaningful analysis in this area would not be possible within the time or funding provided for this project." They did not explain why there was a time limit, nor what funding they received or from whom.

But then, it appears that not a single person on the Task Force is a person of color. Assistant Chief Lynnae Berg, who was part of the CPORT process, should have raised the concern that led to the recommendation on tracking pointed firearms: that young black men are frequently held at gunpoint at traffic stops.

The authors of the report decided not to analyze whether the use of force they studied was tactically sound or even within Bureau policy. However, as they note that 66 specific officers are responsible for 39% of the Use of Force Reports--a total of 1,788 reports, or an average of 27 per officer in the time period reviewed, such a review could benefit the City. Discovering whether those officers were in positions that made them more likely to use force could explain what otherwise appears to be an out-of-control segment of the Bureau; it could also, in fact, confirm that some of the officers are in need of counseling, discipline, or termination.

The report refers several times to "less lethal" weapons as "non-lethal," which is an inaccurate and misleading term used by police to distract from the fact that "beanbag" guns and other impact weapons in fact can and have killed people.

One curious recommendation, number 9, would require a debriefing in all cases in which a complaint is filed about use of force. In the 1990s, the Bureau's policy was to thoroughly investigate any complaint about use of force. This is no longer the case. The recommendation does not clearly outline whether the debriefing would take place prior to an investigation or whether an investigation would be mandatory.

Of great interest to Portland Copwatch, which has raised concerns about the City's efforts to "clean up the streets" downtown, are recommendations #14 and #16. Number 14 calls for reducing use of force in Central Precinct and by Transit police (who were involved in the beating death of James Chasse, Jr. last year, and found to have a use-of-force rate higher than any other unit) by "broadening the strategies...to control street level drug dealing, street disorder... and public disorder." This recommendation sounds like an invitation for more constitutionally questionable practices such as the "Drug Free Zones," the "Sit/Lie ordinance" and heavy-handed crackdowns on first amendment protected street demonstrations. Number 16 calls for the "street crimes unit" to meet twice a year with the IPR Director and Assistant Chief Berg. Since the report claims that the authors were unable to determine the frequency of use of force beyond the precinct level, this recommendation implies that the "street crimes unit" is being singled out based on information that is not included for the public to review.

Some of the statistics presented in the report are a cause for concern, though not all of them are highlighted or properly analyzed by the Task Force:

--26% of people with mental illness who have police use force against them are hit by Tasers. In 2005, Amnesty International has reported that roughly 50% of those who died after being hit by Tasers had some kind of mental illness.

--Tasers were used 840 times in 2 years, not including just pointing the laser sight at people, meaning more than one use per day. Tasers were recommended by CPORT as an alternative to the use of deadly force. Since we assume that officers were not engaging in deadly force situations on a daily basis prior to the adoption of Tasers, this implies that Tasers are being used too often. But the report doesn't address this issue.

--The #1 outcome for suspects in use of force cases was that in 25% of incidents no charges were filed. The report does not correlate this alarming statistic with the fact that 32% of suspects are described as either not resisting or merely failing to comply with an officer's commands.

--The second most frequent and most serious charge against suspects was "resisting arrest," a charge officers use to slap on someone who "fails the attitude test." Looking at all the "most serious charges" in a chart in the report, except for drug use in Central and on Transit police patrols, Resisting Arrest was used more often than any other charge against people who had the police beat, taser, pepper-spray, punch, kick, or launch "less-lethal" weapons at them. Even at that, Resisting Arrest in Central and Transit were equal (23%) or greater (33% versus 32%) than Drug charges. (Only in "other" divisions were any categories higher, with 18% warrant arrests, 15% drug arrests and 12% "resisting arrest.")

--The report alerts Portlanders that 62% of the complaints of use of force are "exonerated"--which is, according to them, twice the national average--contrasted with the 0% sustain rate versus 8-14% nationwide . But it fails to note that the cases not "exonerated" are generally classified as "unfounded." "Exonerated" means the officers did what was alleged but it was within policy. "Unfounded" means the officers did not do what was alleged, at all. The final possible finding, "Insufficient evidence," is used just 10% of the time in Portland. In other words, Internal Affairs and the IPR expect the public to believe that in 90% of cases, there is enough evidence to either exonerate the officers or determine the complainant was not telling the truth. We can state affirmatively that in most cases, it is really the officer's word against the citizen's, meaning that the gravest concern should be about the severe under-use of the "Insufficient evidence" category. It is true that if the Bureau were more clear on definitions of "reasonable" force, more complaints would likely be "sustained." But perhaps more importantly, unbiased and thorough investigations--which are mostly based on police reports weighed against citizen testimony--should be producing more neutral outcomes.

--As with the release of the PARC report, the IPR (and Chief Sizer) have chosen to focus public attention on statistics which are relatively irrelevant or misleading. In that case, the IPR claimed the number of deadly force incidents had decreased as a result of PARC's reviews, which PARC itself did not claim. In the Use of Force report, the statistic that force is used in just 1% of police calls and 5% of arrests is repeated, though numerically speaking, force (other than pointing weapons) was reported in nearly 4000 incidents over two years (with over 2000 uses of Tasers, impact strikes, pepper spray or less-lethal weapons), or over five times a day (or nearly 3 times a day excluding "physical control"). Furthermore, their statistic is based on 434,196 calls for service, but the report does not break down the subject matter of these calls. One could look at the rate at which hospitals actually perform operations on patients and say it is a small percentage, yet invasive surgery is a very serious procedure and needs scrutiny regardless of how infrequently it is used.

--The report does not correlate that the IPR receives about 100 complaints per year on use of force with the number of use of force cases per year (about 2000); this means that one of every 20 uses of force results in a complaint. Since many people who have force used against them either face criminal charges, do not know about the complaint system, or do not believe the complaint system will be able to do anything to help them, this is a significant statistic.

Portland Copwatch strongly urges the Task Force to reconvene, adding members from the African American and Latino communities. A supplemental report should be created including statistics on the pointing of firearms and Tasers. The argument that deadly force is reviewed by PARC does not hold up under scrutiny, since PARC only looks at incidents where firearms were actually discharged. The Task Force should also analyze how often force is used against people of color compared to their white counterparts. In the context of learning that a city with a 7% African American population who are pulled over in 16% of all traffic stops, 24% of pedestrian stops, subject to 50% of "Drug-Free Zone" exclusions, and cited 100% of the time in a recent "pilot program" to ticket parents for the behavior of their children, the lack of such statistics is unconscionable.

For more information contact Portland Copwatch at 503-236-3065.

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Posted August 28, 2007