I attended the monthly meeting of the city’s police watchdog, the Citizen Review Committee, last night. It had an unusual level of drama. The members heard a citizen who had been pursuing a complaint for the better part of a year, and they voted to recommend that the so-called Independent Police Review board proceed to investigate the claim that he had been singled out, because he was black, for citation for jaywalking.
The vote was five to two.
Our city has a sort of three-level structure to handle police complaints. If you have been (I hope you never are, but in the unfortunate case that you have been) brutalized by one or more police officers of the Portland Police Bureau, you can file a complaint with the Independent Police Review board, which will decide whether to investigate the complaint or not, and, if so, hands the investigated case to the Internal Affairs Division of the Police Bureau so that it can do its own investigation. When that’s done, the case goes back to the Independent Police Review, whose decision can be reviewed by the Citizen Review Committee.
If this sounds complicated to you, you’re not alone; the 2012 US Department of Justice report which found a pattern of unconstitutional use of force by Portland police officers termed our city’s system of handling complaints (what I just outlined) “byzantine” and suggested it was designed more to discourage settlement of complaints than to address them (the solution envisaged by our City Council, at present, is to add yet another layer of bureaucracy; but that settlement is in negotiation before a federal judge at the moment; the Department of Justice apparently — inexplicably, to my eyes — regards the response as reasonable).
For many years those in our community agitating for greater accountability of our police officers have indicated that the Citizen Review Committee is toothless; their calls for instituting a system that actually held officers accountable for their brutality have produced a long series of “reforms” which have yet to have accomplished any real change: last year’s findings by the Department of Justice confirm that characterization. Any complaint which comes before the Citizen Review Committee nowadays does so in the shadow, then, of a yet-to-be-settled investigation by the Department of Justice, that finds the City of Portland more than delinquent in response to citizen complaints concerning the treatment of some of its citizens by the police.
So, here’s what happened last night.
After the introductions and the formality of reading a report from the Independent Police Review board, the seven members of the Citizen Review Committee heard the representative of the IPR, Assistant Director Rachel Mortimer, summarize the recommendations. That is, this guy stated he had been addressed in a disrespectful manner — “unproven with debriefing” ; he said he’d been searched inappropriately — [police officer] “exonerated” ; he said his marijuana pipe, for which he had received a medical-marijuana license, had been incorrectly seized — [complainant] “sustained” ; he said he’d been selected for being stopped because of his race — IPR declines to investigate; he said he’d been unfairly charged with jaywalking — IPR declines to investigate.
The purpose of the hearing was not to allow the fellow who was complaining to appeal these decisions, but purely to provide the CRC with a report of how the IPR’s investigation was going so far (the complaint had been lodged on July 12, 2012, and now, 292 days after filing, the status of the investigation was being presented in public, perhaps — I cannot say for sure — for the first time). Once the Assistant Director of the IPR had finished her summary of findings, the Internal Affairs officers from the Portland Police Bureau explained their work, which from the written timeline provided to us spectators, appeared to have taken some three months. The IA officers responded to previously-submitted written questions, the most interesting of which was why they had not included in the case file the transcript of the statements made in court when the complainant appeared for (and was judged guilty of) the charge of jaywalking: they said that neither the police officers involved nor the complainant made any claims that were different from what they’d said in court.
Immediately upon the completion of the second presentation, there was some problem with the case; Michael Bigham, a retired police officer, wanted to know how the charge of “disparate treatment” could have been discarded without investigation. Ms. Mortimer said it had been done after due consideration — there wasn’t enough evidence, nor was enough likely to be developed. The reply did not appear to address the question. Rochelle Silver, a second CRC member, pressed the same question, and got a similar answer, at a little greater length.
Mind you, the question of racial profiling is supposedly exactly what the Portland Police are addressing these days. As far back as 2008, Eileen Luna-Firebaugh was commissioned by the City Council to examine how the system of police oversight in our city could be reformed, and her report specifically deemed racial profiling — what this complaint process termed “disparate treatment” — to be of “community concern” (and to be treated with especial urgency by the IPR). Since then we have had Jesse Jackson fly into town for a press conference in which he stated the killing of an unarmed black man by Portland police officers was “an execution”; we have had a Department of Justice investigation which concluded that the constitutional rights of the mentally ill are systematically violated; and so on.
At that point Michael Bigham moved that the IPR be asked to reopen the investigation into disparate treatment, and Rochelle Silver seconded it.
There was also discussion about why the charge that the jaywalking charge was bogus had been discarded as well, without investigation. The answer here was more interesting. You see, when the complaint had first been received, for the IPR to have concluded that the charge was bogus would have been to have interfered with a matter before the traffic court, and so impermissible. Since then, now that the complainant had been found guilty, for the IPR to have decided that the charge was bogus would amount to overruling the decision of the court, and so equally impermissible. Of course, unspoken in any of this, the argument makes any charge, ever, of two police officers making bogus charges against a citizen worth so much as investigation. It makes the whole oversight system into a sort of parrot, a body that is the opposite of “independent.”
Stephen Yarosh, one of five lawyers on the CRC and one who has represented police officers charged with misconduct, urged that that argument was quite correct: you could only take up a case of filing of bogus charges if the complainant had been found innocent, he said. In such circumstances, of course, we would have no need of an independent forum, for the justice system would have worked. In any case, that explanation of his ended efforts to examine that part of the complaint.
The CRC chair, Jamie Troy, said he had examined the documents outlining the powers of the CRC with care and found no allowance for it ever to ask the IPR to investigate a charge it had found to be without merit. That kind of outlined clearly why community activists have been saying for over a decade that the police oversight system in our city is “toothless.” In a gesture of some courtesy, chair Troy called upon the head of Portland Copwatch, Dan Handelman, easily the most experienced of the community activists in the room, to recall any relevant history of such a situation, and Handelman stated that the prior CRC members had treated advising further investigation by the IPR on a case-by-case basis; he gave a couple of instances. That did not change Troy’s eventual vote.
What changed the whole tone of the discussion away from abstract legal technicalities was what the complainant himself had to say (and here I do not give his name because, perhaps for the reason of some other of those legal technicalities, the documents we were given did not contain it — he is the complainant in case number 2013 X 0002). He had to hold his hand up for more than a minute. His advisor before the CRC had to draw chair Troy’s attention to his hand before he was allowed to speak. What he said changed the discussion.
The judge in the jaywalking case had asked the officer why he had stopped him in the first place — “because he’s a pimp.” Yet, interestingly, that had not had any bearing on the disposition of the case for jaywalking. The complainant had lived in Portland for 17 years and had no previous record, and in fact had done quite a great deal of volunteer work, both within his church and without. He was articulate and quite cogent; a few minutes showed him a man of some education and judgement; and yet he had been hailed while walking down the street, after having exchanged pleasantries with a woman who was a stranger to him, as a “pimp.” He had been told that he was working with a “whore,” and, having provided his address, that he was living off the public dole. The basis of the jaywalking charge was, that in an intersection without crosswalk or stoplight and after dark, he had crossed not at a right angle but diagonally.
Every one of us in that room believed, in my personal opinion, that he had been called a pimp because of his skin color. The vote was five to two rather than unanimous because of the lingering effect of the shifts and dodges of a system set up to evade, rather than to impose, accountability on Portland police officers.
A small victory, perhaps. But it is of such small victories that we can build a better world.