People's Police Report
Shootings & deaths
Status of Community Board's Input Unclear After a Year
Overseeing Use of Force Agreement
The Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB), created as part of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Settlement Agreement with the City of Portland to address a pattern of excessive Use of Force, has not yet heard whether any of its several dozen recommendations on policy have been implemented. The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) assigned Captain Mike Marshman to be the "Compliance Coordinator" for the Agreement. At the March 25 COAB meeting, Marshman was unable to say whether the Board's suggestions were in any revised "Directives," though on April 14, a DOJ representative promised feedback is forthcoming. Meanwhile, in part to address tensions that boiled over into complaints from a police advisor against community COAB members, the Board, which was set up to increase the transparency of this process, held a retreat out of the public eye in January. Their February meeting marked one year of the COAB's operation. Among other things, they had still not held either of the two meetings per year the Agreement requires them to have with the Chief and the Police Commissioner.
On the bright side, recommendations around Use of Force and specific weapons, policies which originally had been presented in October and November, were finally approved by the end of March. The pattern, especially for recommendations coming from COAB's Data Systems, Use of Force and Compliance Subcommittee (DSUFCS), has been for the officer advisors to jump in with wild allegations, delaying the votes unnecessarily. For instance, on January 21, Lt. Tashia Hager argued that if she were in a fight for her life and wasn't allowed to use a choke hold or punch/kick someone in the head, she would just reach for her gun, since she needs to go home at night. Ignoring that the civilian she's struggling with also needs to go home at night, Hager seemed to be misunderstanding that the proposal stated unless deadly force would be justified (morals aside), police can't kick people in the head. Hager also delayed a recommendation regarding transporting suspects by demanding the DSUFSC provide alternatives to using words such as "excited delirium" (a term not defined by the medical community, but championed by Taser International to explain why so many people die after being shocked with their weapons). Hager insisted it is COAB's "job" to tell the Bureau what to say if they are to change their current (offensive) language. COAB members are not paid to be at these meetings; the police advisors are.
Nonetheless, the DSUFCS' 18-plus recommendations nearly all passed with the needed quorum of 8 or more votes on the 15 member Board, one exception being an amendment to ban the use of pepper spray in crowd control situations. The downside: not only are the recommendations filtered through the police-friendly Compliance Officer/Community Liaison (COCL) from Chicago before heading to the Bureau, but they are not necessarily going to be considered in the final policies set to be released soon. Portland Copwatch (PCW) suggested the DOJ bring the "final" versions as drafts to allow COAB one more chance to align the Directives with community concerns.
A few of the DSUFCS recommendations weren't only about force. They also reviewed the Foot Pursuit Directive (630.15), recommending officers only engage in solo foot pursuits if the person being chased poses an immediate threat. In addition, they recommended the Training Division ensure officers not rely on the "21 foot rule," which implies someone coming at an officer with a knife from under 21 feet should automatically be shot. Though the Bureau insists they do not train on this issue, one officer involved in shooting Thomas Higginbotham invoked the 21-foot rule in his decision to fire his weapon (as revealed in the OIR Group report discussed elsewhere in this issue).
After Officer Paul Meyer, using Bureau letterhead, filed complaints against COAB members Tom Steenson, Rochelle Silver and Myrlaviani Rivier (PPR #67), two of the complaints were resolved through mediation. In March, an administrative investigation into whether Steenson violated COAB rules found the accusations-- including whether Meyer's words were not included in paperwork about the recommendations-- were not proven. On April 8, Meyer resigned from the Board without explanation. The complaints resulted in dragging out the recommendations process for months and putting the three unpaid volunteers walking on eggshells while Meyer got to do whatever he wanted. Supposedly, the voting (civilian) and non-voting (police) Board members made efforts to get along better at the January retreat. PCW raised concerns, including that a quorum of the Board would be present and if they discussed even one iota of COAB business, it must be a public meeting. Backed by the COCL and Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the Board went ahead with the private meeting.
In addition to meetings with the Chief and Mayor, COAB is supposed to hold a second Community Outreach meeting to follow up on the one from last April. That forum created a disastrous atmosphere by allowing police to talk for over an hour, then handing the microphone to their supporters before the general public could talk (PPR #65). No second community forum has been held. Also, after the last alternate member was appointed in October, the City has not filled the five empty alternate slots, even though it's more likely than not that another COAB member will resign in the next few months.
In January, the Board heard from DHM, the company that implemented the community survey assigned to COAB. Even though DHM increased their sample size for communities of color, the report's analysis was only slightly better than the Portland State University one released in 2014 which minimized the low ratings given by most people. The COCL published DHM's results in a "semi-annual outcomes report" last October, noting some questions were vetted by the "National Police Research Platform" (NPRP), but taking several pages to reveal COCL Dennis Rosenbaum is Director of the NPRP. The survey shows only 58% of civilians find the police trustworthy, 79% of African Americans and 73% of Native Americans think officers stereotype them, and only 57% of people would call police if a family member had a mental health crisis-- a number that falls to 39% among African Americans.
At their February 11 meeting, discussion of recommendations was cut off so COCL team member Dr. Amy Watson could discuss issues around stigma attached to mental health issues. The February 25 meeting was entirely taken up by more presentations on mental health. While it is true the DOJ Agreement focuses on the use of excessive force against people who are perceived to be in mental health crisis, the operative problem is that Portland Police are generally too prone to use force. Most people on the COAB work with or are affected by mental health concerns. When a body looking at a 180-paragraph agreement only meets six hours a month, their time should be spent making recommendations or analyzing the progress of the Agreement. So much time has been spent explaining how the City's systems work, when Rosenbaum and Watson unveiled the latest assessment report in April, they were given just 30 minutes to present.
PCW has been analyzing those reports, and to their credit the COCL team responded in January to all feedback they received on the second quarter 2015 report. As PCW noted, it's helpful to know why certain recommendations are accepted or rejected so the community doesn't keep making the same comments over and over. The COCL also stated: "We support any action that increases transparency, streamlines processes and increases community involvement," and expressed support for community members to "attend and give input at [Behavoiral Health Unit Advisory Committee] meetings." However, the COCL also continues to refuse to name the persons at the Bureau who are in charge of aspects of implementing the Agreement, calling the idea of "transparency" into question.
In addition, the COCL claimed COAB does not have the authority to review proposed trainings, which raises the question of how they can "independently assess implementation of the Agreement." The DSUFCS asked for training materials in July 2015 and was given some in January. When Steenson asked for the rest, the COCL responded the request wasn't made on the proper form.
Similarly trying to follow the letter but not the spirit of the Agreement, the Bureau gave the COAB its draft 2015 Annual Report on March 25. Rather than a comprehensive document covering force and profiling data, as described in the Agreement, it is another booklet-sized quasi-comic book, along the lines of the one adorned with Mounted Patrol horses in 2014 (PPR #63).
One of the key disagreements PCW has with the DOJ and the COCL is the concept that the COAB is supposed to "collaborate" with the police. In a February 12 article, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting quoted a UCLA and Columbia law professor, who said: "Cooperation in conditions of extreme disparities in power is what is otherwise known as occupation and oppression."
In early March, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her Deputy Vanita Gupta visited Portland to commend the City's "community policing." Lynch's visit to the Boys and Girls Club in N. Portland was by invitation only, with a parade of police collaborators similar to the April 2015 COAB Outreach meeting. Dr. LeRoy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance (AMA) Coalition for Justice and Police Reform was the lone voice arguing "community policing" is not a reality. The meeting with Gupta included the AMA Coalition's steering committee and 7 COAB members (to avoid a quorum--and the three people Officer Meyer complained about were not invited). Gupta heard clearly that the Bureau has to be more responsive to concerns and "close the loop" on the recommendations being made by COAB, or face a total lack of credibility.
Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.