PIIAC UNDER SCRUTINY Still Can't Get Its Act Together

Even though Portland's "police review board" is under intense scrutiny by a community continuing to call for its overhaul (see article), its civilian members have only made baby steps forward and City Council, who acts as the board, has not been much help.

The Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee (PIIAC) sent Nena Williams' case back to the Police Bureau's Internal Affairs Division (IAD) for further investigation (case #00-02; see PPR #21). Williams discovered that an officer made comments indicating he treated her violently because of her weight. IAD Captain Bret "Maverick" Smith refused to follow the recommendation, which passed the Citizen Advisory committee 6-5. Williams appealed to City Council in August. Two PIIAC Advisors and the staff person ‹all of whom had opposed sending the case back to IAD‹presented the case. Despite a strong presentation from Williams, the Council declined to uphold the Advisors' finding. None of the Commissioners was willing to postpone the case until one of the majority membership could make a presentation.

On the bright side, Commissioners Hales, Sten and Francesconi indicated that they were anxious to vote on changes to PIIAC which would give them final say as to the disposition of a complaint; all three were shocked when Williams' first case, sent back by a majority of Council to Chief Moose for a "sustained" finding, was rejected by the Chief in 1997.

In the first such action since then, Advisors at the September meeting recommended a changed finding in the case of Dora McRae (#00-15), an elderly African-American woman who was dragged from her car during a traffic stop (see "Lawsuits" in PPR #21). In this case, the only evidence was the officer's testimony and McRae's; the only other witness died of old age during the two-year investigation. The Bureau found the officer "Exonerated," but Advisor Denise Stone moved that the finding be changed to "Insufficient Evidence." Although this finding specifically does not indicate that the officer did anything wrong (it only states that there is not enough evidence to prove either way), most of the Advisors appeared to be afraid to challenge the Bureau. The vote passed 2-1, with 5 abstentions.

On November 22, City Council deferred hearing McRae's case for fear of making statements that could be used in her February 2001 retrial in civil court. Their conflict of interest in wanting to avoid liability is a great example of why PIIAC should be independent of Council.

The biggest tragedy of this underwhelming support for keeping the Bureau accountable is that dozens of cases have come through PIIAC which merit the "Insufficient Evidence" finding, yet this is the first time an effort has been made to do anything.

At the October meeting, staff person Mike Hess presented a case in which a citizen's complaint was investigated by a Sergeant who had been present at the incident being considered. Although Hess had originally intended to send the case back for more investigation (by someone without a conflict of interest), he talked with Captain Smith and the two Advisors who most frequently move to uphold the Bureau's findings, Robert Wells and Bob Ueland‹and guess what? Hess was convinced to accept the Bureau's finding of "Exonerated" and not to send the case back. We at Copwatch are beginning to worry about Hess' ability to make neutral decisions.

Both of the cases presented in October featured appellants who complained that key witnesses were never interviewed. In the summary of one case, an IAD sergeant clearly asked questions which were not open-ended. (For instance, they asked "Did you call him a dirtbag?" instead of "What did you say to him?".)

Back at City Council, Mayor Katz decided not to hear from the public on the appeal of case # 99- 13, even though the appellant had several community members familiar with his case present to support him. Katz arbitrarily told the frustrated activists that she had only ever let Copwatch speak on PIIAC cases. Although we have been allowed to testify in some hearings, we have not always been allowed to do so, and certainly other people have been allowed to speak before PIIAC. It is the Mayor's prerogative to ask, "Does anybody else want to testify on this?" before Council takes a vote on any item on the agenda, including PIIAC. We encourage other members of the public to push for more input into the process.

As a public service, Copwatch began distributing a fact sheet to appellants and audience members in November, asking "Do you feel your case was treated fairly? That your story was listened to with respect and impartiality? Let the people who appointed PIIAC Advisors know what kind of job they are doing." It then lists the names of all 13 Advisors, who appointed them, and contact phone numbers. In preparing this sheet, we discovered that Ueland, who represents the Central Northeast Neighbors coalition on PIIAC, is also the Chair of that coalition‹meaning it would be he to whom one presumably would have to complain about his own performance! After November's meeting, at which one member of the audience called on Ueland to resign for his bias and others criticized his behavior, we think that phone number (503-823-3156) will get quite a work out.

For a copy of our full list of PIIAC members, contact us at 503-236-3065 or copwatch@portlandcopwatch.org. For other info on PIIAC, call 503-823-4126.

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