People's Police Report
Shootings & deaths
Compliance Officer Generously Finds City Close to Finishing DOJ
The Compliance Officer/Community Liaison (COCL), the office in charge of assessing how well the Portland Police are fulfilling their obligations under the 2012 Settlement Agreement with the City calling for less force to be used, put out two generous quarterly reports in April and July. The first focused on paragraphs regarding Mental Health-- one of the main issues cited by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) precipitating the Agreement. The second focused on Use of Force. In both reports, the COCL used its "scorecard" to show all of the paragraphs shaded in green, indicating they are all in Substantial Compliance. While a number of issues were labeled "Substantial-Conditional," the message was clear that the reforms are being hustled to the finish line regardless of how things are playing out in the streets. The City definitely heard about those concerns at two more town halls they put on while working to get the Portland Committee on Community Engaged Policing (PCCEP) off the ground, after having dissolved the previous civilian body-- the Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB)-- in January 2017 (PPR #71).
As with the forums in February and March, and to a lesser extent April, when the COCL's report was the main topic, the City seemed determined to control the narrative at the June meeting. An exception was in May, when Mayor Ted Wheeler unexpectedly arrived at a church basement where only about a dozen community members were able to pepper him and several Portland Police Bureau (PPB) command staff about issues of accountability. One issue of particular concern was the death of John Elifritz at the hands of the PPB while he was in mental health crisis inside a faith- based homeless center (PPR #74). The Mayor tried turning the discussion around, blaming the lack of funding for mental health care. Portland Copwatch (PCW) and others noted the mental health system did not kill Elifritz, the Portland Police did. The June meeting was promoted as a discussion of how "police interact with vulnerable populations, including the houseless and those struggling with mental health and addiction." The first panel was made up of social service workers and Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, a psychiatric nurse and former member of the COAB. Meieran was the only panelist who mentioned law enforcement until the audience Q&A. The second panel was just police officers, who to their credit seemed sympathetic to wanting to help those in crisis, but didn't clarify why so much force is still being used after five years of alleged reforms.
The July forum was abruptly canceled two days in advance, with the cryptic message that "at the request of the Auditor, the Independent Police Review is no longer able to participate."
Even though twenty-two people have been shot by the PPB since the DOJ Agreement was signed in late 2012, and most have been in some kind of mental health crisis, the COCL refused to analyze so-called "Level I Force" in its 70-page Force report. By ignoring this crucial category, they managed to claim that people in mental health crisis are not more likely to be subjected to Force than those who are not-- even though their own data show people in crisis are subjected to the second highest (Level II) force 17% of the time rather than 8%, or twice as often. On the other hand, the COCL's July report does state scientifically what community members have known by observation for years: African Americans, youth, Latinx and houseless persons have more force used against them than other Portlanders. In all, the COCL found eight of 12 paragraphs on Force in "Conditional" compliance, giving the police a few tasks to finish up to be done in this area.
The April report gave only three of 28 paragraphs about mental health "Conditional" ratings. In both cases, PCW warned that the police will see this as a (premature) stamp of aPPRoval for their unfinished work, and the community will be angered by seeing "Substantial Compliance" given when they are not seeing the results. One fallout of the April report was that Dr. Amy Watson, the COCL's resident expert on mental health issues, quit the team on April 14, between the time it was published and when the Status Conference was held before Judge Michael Simon (also PPR #74). The May 5 Oregonian quotes Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum, head of the COCL team, as saying there was a "professional difference of opinion" about the review of how the PPB responds to mental health calls.
The COCL barely mentions Force in the Mental Health report, even though, for instance, their data show that incidents involving the Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team lead to a force rate 10 times higher than the rest of the Bureau (2.2% vs. 0.22% of all calls for service). Similarly, even though two paragraphs in the Agreement about Force call on the Bureau to discipline officers who are out of policy, in the Force report, the COCL deferred analysis of discipline until the fourth quarter 2018 report on accountability.
On the bright side, the July report indicates that when officers use verbal de-escalation tactics, less serious force is used against people in crisis. The Bureau brought in trainers from the Police Executive Research Forum in May to train instructors and the SERT team on de-escalation, emphasizing that "our number one job is to make sure everybody goes home at night" (Oregonian, May 6).
Meanwhile, the City is still dragging out the process of creating the PCCEP. The initial deadline for community members to apply was June 1, but that was extended until July 2 after a number of community forums to explain the new body had low turnout, and incoming applications did not reflect the diversity of Portland. Their current plan is to have the members chosen, trained and seated by October. Even if that happens, it will mean the scheduled October 4 hearing before Judge Simon will not resolve anything, as the main purpose for holding it was to see whether the PCCEP was an adequate replacement for the COAB.
As the DOJ reminded the community at the April forum, the City has to be in 100% compliance, then there will be a one year period to ensure the changes remain intact.
Commander Steve Jones, head of the PPB's Professional Standards Division in charge of ensuring the Settlement Agreement is implemented, crashed into a phone pole and was charged with a DUII just hours after he attended the June community forum (Oregonian, June 29).
Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.