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Steady and inappropriate Taser use disturbing

On July 14, the Portland Police Bureau and Independent Police Review Division (IPR) put out their second joint report on police use of force. The report's first half gives police credit for following all recommendations made in the previous 2007 report (which used stats from September 2004 to September 2006 PPR #42), and analyzes data mostly from November 2007-November 2008 in the second half. However, the report doesn't make new recommendations or analyze how force is used against whom in Portland. Statistics released to the City's Racial Profiling Committee (RPC) after the first report was published indicated that force was being used at alarming rates against African American Portlanders, who make up 6% of the population but have 29% of all force used against them. The new statistics show no change in that racial makeup. Furthermore, the report notes that the use of Tasers has not gone down along with other kinds of force, and that Taser use is up against those with mental illnesses, who are more vulnerable to die after being shocked with the devices.

The report compares the rate at which African Americans are arrested (25% now, 27% in 2004-06) to the use of force (29% in both reports). It notes that the 4% difference in the new reporting period is of "statistical significance" and states that further study needs to be done to determine the cause. However, there is no recommendation nor promise that such a study will occur. Even more disturbing, the pointing of firearms at African Americans, which was already a high 30% in the previous statistics, is even higher now at 34%. The "point weapon only" statistics also show that more people are not ever charged with a crime (48%) after having a gun pointed at them than when other kinds of force are used (29%). It is particularly unsettling that 1385 other uses of force were reported, with 1053 incidents of just pointing a firearm - meaning cops pointing guns make up 43%of all uses of force. Any basic gun safety class will teach that if you point your weapon at anything, you had better be ready to shoot.

In 2007, Portland Copwatch (PCW) asked for and received raw numbers showing various types of force used separated by suspects' ethnicity. These raw numbers show disturbing trends. In both 2004-2006 and 2008, African Americans were at the receiving end of 29% of "physical control" and Taser uses, and 22% of blunt impact strikes. Pepper spray use against African Americans has gone up from 31% to 40% - 35 of 86 people hit with the spray were African Americans.

Despite an apparent drop in most other uses of force, Taser use has remained consistent at about 500 uses per year. A new table shows Tasers were used 61 times on people who were not complying with police orders - a level of resistance which does not allow officers, by their own rules, to use the electroshock weapons - and perhaps another 18 times when no resistance at all was occurring. In addition to opening up investigations on these 79 incidents, the Bureau should immediately issue an order that Tasers are not "compliance tools." They are weapons that are potentially lethal. Amnesty International has documented over 350 incidents in which suspects died after being hit with Tasers. Many of the people were suffering from mental illness. The Portland Mercury reported July 21 that the raw number in Portland of those with mental illness hit with Tasers was up from 87 uses in 2006 to 110 in 2008, a 26% increase.

In 2007, Chief Sizer declared that the Bureau no longer considers it a use of force when an officer points a Taser at a person and pulls the trigger halfway, illuminating a laser light showing where the prongs will hit. PCW challenges the Chief to tell us what that action is, if not a use of force. The Chief claims that other cities do not track this number, so Portland should not either. The "laser light only" was used over 1400 times in the 2004-2006 reporting period, or about 700 times a year. When a civilian sees an officer, arm outstretched, pulling on a trigger, with a red laser dot on their chest, the civilian does not know whether a 50,000 volt surge or a bullet will be coming their way. We hope that these issues will be addressed in the audit being conducted by new Auditor Lavonne Griffin-Valade, which she announced in July.

It is difficult to tell how much use of force has only appeared to go down due to changes in reporting requirements. Control holds including handcuffing and maneuvers by police to get people into cuffs, such as twisting arms up behind a suspect's back or pulling their fingers in a certain way, are no longer considered use of force unless they cause injury. Anyone who has had these holds applied to them knows they cause pain, even if it doesn't lead to hospitalization or a documented injury. Therefore, use of force is now being seriously under-reported in the City of Portland. Why this decision was made without input from the public is unclear.

Accepting that there has been some drop in force used, it is also significant that officer injuries have gone down. One of the officers' largest concerns about the new Use of Force Directive was their fear of being in greater danger. So far, this does not seem to be the case.

PCW continues to assert that the new Directive's verbiage suggesting that police should use less force is undercut by allowing for officers to use the amount of force "reasonably necessary under the totality of the circumstances." Unlike the old Directive, which tied maximum force levels to resistance levels, this broadly subjective standard is sure to be relied upon in court when police go out of control with violence. In other words, while the Use of Force Report gives credit for the Bureau following its previous recommendation to revise the force policy, there is still too much "wiggle room" for inappropriate use of force to go unpunished. It is noteworthy that Portland officers are now required to report when they see the directive being violated. The Bureau should also strengthen its whistleblower protection policies to encourage more such reporting of misconduct within the ranks.

One recommendation ignored with regard to public trust is the requirement to review use of force statistics annually. Because the Chief changed the reporting form in November 2007, the Report contains no data from the period of October 2006 to November 2007, making comparisons for that time frame impossible. Also, each unit supposedly analyzes use of force data every six months, but those reports are not being made public. In addition, the semi-annual reviews of "street crime units" are not taking place as recommended. PCW would suggest that those reviews of complaint data, tactics, and use of force also question the constitutionality and appropriateness of the missions of these units, such as the "Service Coordination Team" and its secret list of repeat offenders (see article in this issue).

The report shows the Use of Force Review Board (UFRB) held hearings on every case in which civilians were transported to the hospital after police used force in 2008 (28 times, on average every two weeks), which is good news. However, they have since decided to review those cases in the future cumulatively on an annual basis, only to look for patterns and trends. It is not clear whether such a review could trigger an investigation if the hospitalization was possibly caused by officer misconduct.

Perhaps one of the vaguest areas addressed by the Task Force is the Transit Division. Though efforts apparently have been made to make officers "more visible, engaging and approachable," few specifics are given on how they will be using less force. The CRC identified a serious problem in 2008 - that officers from other jurisdictions working for Tri-Met under Portland Police supervision are not subject to the same complaint system as Portland officers. Particularly with use of force complaints, the Task Force should have addressed this anomaly.

The Task Force was once again heavily populated by Portland Police personnel; the only person of color on the Task Force was IPR Assistant Director Constantin Severe; and the meetings were not open to the general public. To their credit, the IPR's Citizen Review Committee (CRC) did solicit public input to bring to the Task Force meetings, but it is not clear from the report whether that input was incorporated. While the Bureau should be commended for creating the report, looking at the statistics, and making efforts to lower the amount of force being used, the process is still far from meeting the standards of "community policing."

  People's Police Report

September, 2009
Also in PPR #48

Force Report: Disparities in Who Gets Hit
Sit/Lie Suspended
Chasse Family Partial Settlement Reached
  • Salem Man Dies After Taser Use
Review Board Reports&1st 2009 Hearing
"Sheriff" Skipper Skips School
Cop Arrested for Sexual Calls
  • Lake Oswego Lets Rapist Cop Keep Working
City Pays More for Misbehaving Cops
Council Pays for Secret List
Racial Profiling Treads Water in Portland
Legal Briefs: Supreme Court Strengthens Rights
Quick Flashes #48
  • Houseless Camping at Gay Pride Parade
  • Cops Don't Investigate Homophobic Assault
  • Deputy Charged in Off-Duty Taser Use
Rapping Back #48

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

Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.

People's Police Report #48 Table of Contents
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