Last week an arbitrator once again reversed disciplinary action against two Portland police officers. Sgt. Kyle Nice and Officer Chris Humphreys were suspended for 80 hours, after James Chasse Jr. died in their custody in September 2006. The city was forced to settle a $1.6 million wrongful death claim from Chasse family.
Many in the city, including The Skanner News, believe both officers should have faced charges for their treatment of Chasse. At the very least, they should both have been fired. Instead, they will receive 80 hours of back pay – along with a free pass.
The City of Portland can't fire or punish police officers. When decisions go before an arbitrator, the officers are almost always let off the hook, no matter how badly they behaved or what damage they caused.
Remaining in his job, Humphreys went on to use a beanbag gun to subdue a 12-year-old girl, in 2009. And when Commissioner Saltzman tried to take him off the streets during the investigation, dozens of police officers marched on city hall wearing tee-shirts proclaiming, "I am Chris Humphreys."
Yet those police officers still expect the public to trust their judgment? That's how dangerous this power imbalance between the police union and the public interest has become.
Time after time, Humphreys gamed the system. After the discipline was handed out in the Chasse case, he spent a year collecting stress-related disability benefits. Then, after the beanbag incident, he went back to claiming stress disability for another two and a half years –even as he was preparing a campaign to run for sheriff in Wheeler County. His pension will cover all of that time.
It's a disgrace, and fixing it should be at the top of City Council's to-do list. We have some thoughts on how to do that.
At fault is a police contract that is heavily weighted against the public interest. No other employees are entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the peace. No other city employees are empowered to take a life in a split second. The contract we have now makes it impossible to hold police officers accountable for how they wield the trust we bestow on them.
Yet contracts are changed or broken all the time. The city has the power to declare an emergency, renegotiate the contract and remove all powers connected to the arbitrator. That's all it would take: five commissioners acting together to pass emergency legislation.
Until Portland's police officers can be held accountable for their actions, the public will continue to distrust, fear and avoid them. And we all will be worse off for it.
What Do You Think? Should city commissioners declare an emergency and start over with the police contract?