If any of the accounts of police misconduct at a recent meeting are to be believed, the Independent Police Review Committee isn't doing such a hot job.
"I didn't hear anyone in this room say, 'I had a great experience with the Citizens Review Board' tonight,'" said Eileea Luna-Firebaugh, an attorney and University of Arizona professor, who has been hired by the city to conduct an external review of the IPR and Citizen Review Committee. At a meeting with Luna-Firebaugh and representatives of Portland Copwatch and the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center, citizens who have had experiences with the IPR/CRC were asked to come forward and tell their stories.
Dan Handelman, director of Portland CopWatch, says this is the "one window of opportunity" for the next five or six years to make major changes to the way the police review board handles cases. Only a fraction of the people who took part in review hearings gave evidence, but those who did volunteer evidence painted a negative picture of the police oversight system. Luna-Firebaugh's final report is due to the City Council Jan. 15.
Melvia Wilson said she was the victim of harassing phone calls that were both racial- and gender-offensive. After filing a complaint with the police department, she said she felt the officer didn't do everything in his power to investigate. She said her complaint to the IPR was handed to Internal Affairs, which handed the complaint to a precinct sergeant – a supervisor of the officer named on the complaint.
The officer was then asked by his supervisor to write a second report about the incident, which Wilson said denigrated her character and made several false statements about Wilson's complaint.
"It undermined both myself and my character," She said. "… further denying me my civil rights."
Others told of feeling the CRC process was inherently useless.
"I know, based on my experience, it'd be a waste of time," said Clifford Walker, a member of the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs and African American Advisory Council to the Police.
Walker said he has filed a number of complaints over the years and never felt he was treated fairly. He said the very nature of a complaint system controlled by the city lends itself to ineffectiveness.
"Any system that the city controls … they're going to limit their liability," he said. "It's like telling on themselves. I don't understand how it could be independent."
Handelman says some other cities do use independent investigators. Part of the problem in Portland, he maintains, is the practice of the police investigating other police. In some cases, investigations from the Independent Police Review are handed down to the Internal Affairs Department. Some minor complaints are deemed "service complaints" and are given to a precinct sergeant to investigate. IPR Deputy Director Mike Hess said while IPR investigates every case initially, serious complaints are investigated by Internal Affairs alongside IPR investigators. Minor complaints are handled almost exclusively within the police department.
A preliminary report by Luna-Firebaugh indicated about 4 percent of complaints are sustained, or found to be valid. Other cities with similar systems sustain 8 to 12 percent of complaints. Hess said numbers can be misleading because other cities often record their statistics differently. Portland includes every complaint in their statistics – no matter how untrue or outlandish.
That is not to say that nearly 95 percent (in Portland's case) of complaints against the police are frivolous. The high rate can partly be attributed to "he said/she said" disputes, or cases that used to be deemed "insufficient evidence."
Until recently the IPR/CRC made a distinction between cases where the citizen's complaint is found to be false and cases where the truth is impossible to determine because the officer's and the citizen's stories contradict one another. Now the IPR/CRC and Internal Affairs no longer differentiate between the two outcomes. Insufficient evidence findings and false complaint findings are now lumped in one finding – "unproven."
For Handelman and others, this distinction – between a false complaint and one where there is insufficient evidence — is extremely important and should be retained. They argue that a number of findings of "insufficient evidence" against one officer could paint a picture of errant behavior more easily than a number of "false complaint" findings; "unproven" findings paint an incomplete picture.
But Hess said the IPR and Internal Affairs don't see a statistical difference in lumping together the two findings.
Consultant Luna-Firebaugh said her report will try to paint the most truthful picture of Portland's police review system. Luna-Firebaugh, and two graduate students from the University of Arizona, have conducted numerous interviews with as many officers and citizens involved in complaints as possible. She will also be comparing Portland's system with other systems across the country.