Critics say a recent decision by Portland City Council to allow police supervisors to rule on misconduct cases is a step back for police accountability reform.
On July 14, the council voted in a 5-2 decision to allow a commander of a police officer accused of misconduct to sit on the board that decides his or her fate.
The change was heralded by both Police Chief Mike Reese and City Auditor Lavonne Griffin-Valade. According to Commissioner Randy Leonard, it will allow professional officers to weigh in on decisions of discipline to be objective and fair.
"Those are tough balancing acts to make," Leonard said. "In those questions of oversight where the police bureau is a full and credible participating partner, they should get the benefit of any doubt of any request they make."
Dan Handelman of Portland CopWatch disagrees.
"This change undermines the important structural changes being put in place to establish a system that is truly transparent and fair to all involved," he wrote in a letter signed by Handelman and other members of the Police Oversight Stakeholders Committee.
The Police Review Board was established on March 31 to enhance transparency and community trust in the police bureau. It is composed of five voting members and nine advisory board members, including two Citizens Review Committee members, the director of the Independent Police Review and three members of the police force, among others. It serves as an advisory panel for the chief of police.
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Although supported by the police command and five council members, an outside consultant of the department's policies recommended specifically against allowing a supervisor of sitting on the board responsible for deciding the punishment of that officer.
The 2003 and 2006 PARC reports both stated that it would be a conflict of interest to have a supervising officer to be able to vote. That same officer would be bringing forth a recommendation of discipline.
"The RU manager of the officer should not be a voting member when this manager will be presenting the findings and advocating for a particular recommendation, which he/she helped formulate," states the letter from the Stakeholders group. "Indeed, as was discussed at the Stakeholder meeting, the RU manager is a bit like a "prosecutor" presenting a case. It is not appropriate for RU manager to act as "prosecutor" and then get to sit on the jury as well."
Mayor Sam Adams said he based his decision on his trust of Auditor Griffin-Valade.
"I've never seen in my time an auditor that is so committed to accountability policies," Adams said. "She has sponsored and requested this change. I know she'll be vigilant in reviewing this change for any unintended consequences."
Both Commissioner Fritz and Saltzman said they were concerned about the change.
"I can't support the change at this time," Fritz said. "The stakeholder group has expressed concerns about the process and change. I was willing to vote on this prior because the chief recommended it."
Saltzman said he thought the council should pay heed to the recommendations of the PARC reports.
"What troubles me so much about the change we are making is that it is so sharply recommended against by the PARC reports," he said. "We hired that group to give us their professional judgments. I don't feel it's wise … I'm not willing to support this."
Joann Bowman, a member of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee, told The Skanner News that the change essentially allows a supervisor to vote twice on the outcome of a misconduct trial – once as an investigator and once as a board member. She said with only two civilian members on the board, the deck is stacked against true accountability.
"I think we do such a disservice to the public by going out of our way to protect police officers," she said. "This gives police more say on what the outcomes are going to be."