The Verdict: Portland's system of ensuring police accountability is desperately flawed
Earlier this week, a long-awaited report came out regarding the performance of the Independent Police Review division (IPR) including the Citizen Review Committee (CRC). The release of this document concludes a 6 month study by consultants into the competence, effectiveness, and behavior of the IPR, and by extension, the Portland police. And the report is scathing.
Many of us were skeptical about this report, since we have seen so many other reports, recommendations, panels, committees and so forth come and go nowhere, left to languish without response. And indeed, the author of this study remarks early in the report that many of the weaknesses that she found regarding the IPR (and there were many) had been uncovered during previous studies, and had never been addressed. She questioned why so many issues would still be a problem, even after they had been pointed out numerous times in the past by previous studies. But I am getting ahead of myself here.
The fact is, consultant Eileen Luna-Firebaugh and her colleagues found what virtually every other outside (and inside) entity has found when looking into the inner workings of the IPR and the CRC. That is, the system is flawed. The public is dissatisfied and distrustful of the IPR, and those perceptions are justified.
Some of the many problems described by Luna-Firebaugh et al include the following:
1. The majority of complaints filed against the PPB (67% in 2006) "were processed and closed by the IPR without any investigation of the propriety of police conduct."
2. The sustain rate (or number of complaints whose allegations are sustained by the IPR) in Portland is exceedingly and unjustifiably low. In fact that rate is just over one percent.
3. The system lacks transparency.
4. The IPR has never once conducted any investigations of complaints against the police. Instead, it has always simply accepted the word of the Internal Affairs Division (IAD), meaning that the police have been allowed to investigate themselves virtually without any meaningful oversight.
5. IAD "investigations" were often conducted in a very poor manner, in which only officers were interviewed, and no neutral witnesses were heard. Even so, the IPR failed to question the results of the IAD investigations.
6. There was often a failure to hold officers accountable for admitted misconduct, as well as for violations of PPB codes and protocols.
7. The system has failed to learn from its mistakes. The IPR has not participated adequately in facilitating changes of policies and procedures based on lessons learned from patterns of complaints.
8. Complaints involving even the most serious allegations of use of force, racism, and illegal activities by police are steered into mediation, rather than addressed in a manner that would result in a sanction for the officer involved. Mediation is inappropriate in cases such as these, for many reasons. Mediation in these circumstances allows officers to escape accountability for their actions, serves to obscure the level and prevalence of police misconduct, and requires that the victim share both the responsibility and the blame for the occurrence.
These are only some of the many weaknesses uncovered by these consultants. Their report was detailed and meticulous in exposing the many flaws of the current system, and I encourage anyone who has the time and the patience to read through the entire document for themselves. You can find a link to it here: http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2008/01/371449.shtml.
The consultants note a very close relationship between the IPR and the Internal Affairs Division of the Portland Police Bureau. Luna-Firebaugh usually presents that as a strength of the current system, since the entities are working cooperatively together. However, given the tremendous weaknesses outlined in the rest of her report, I cannot share her assessment that this cooperation (she actually uses the word "collaboration" numerous times, which is probably a more appropriate use of language) is a healthy thing for this community. The whole idea of the IPR is that it is supposed to be independent. (This is what the "I" is for in IPR.) It is not supposed to be a rubber-stamping, collaborating arm of the PPB. Given that most of the members of the IPR are former law enforcement officers who all know each other from their days on the force, it's hard to see how it could have been anything else. It's also hard to see how it is supposed to function independently, so that the cozy relationship between the PPB and the IPR demonstrates an enormous conflict of interest on the part of the IPR. No wonder the public has little faith in the entire process.
I am still skeptical that anything will ever become of this latest in a long series of scathing reports outlining the painfully obvious deficits of the Portland Police Bureau and the half-hearted and mostly symbolic efforts on the part of the IPR to hold them accountable for their actions. But I am at least intrigued to note that it is now, (again), a matter of public record that it is not just us, that those of us who are distrustful of, and dissatisfied with the current system of police accountability in this city are not just some paranoid, lunatic fringe. The problems of the current system are pervasive and well documented in this report.
As I poured over all 186 pages, I did have a few moments of disbelief -- as when, in the Executive Summary, Luna-Firebaugh stated that "the PPB is not a troubled department" and then went on to describe the PPB as being "progressive, and generally well managed." This will strike a note of dark humor among any of us who have had to deal with the PPB over the past decade. I know it gave me a good, if bitter, laugh. Obviously, the consultants are mindful about who is signing their paychecks. Even so, the report firmly acknowledged that citizen dissatisfaction with the PPB, and with the Independent Police Review process specifically, has been widespread, pervasive, and consistent, and that there is good reason for that.
This is particularly noteworthy, since many of the people who had the greatest reason to be dissatisfied with the performance of the IPR system (those who have had their complaints dismissed and ignored by the IPR, and those whose lack of faith in the system ensured that they never filed complaints at all) refused to participate in this political exercise. As reported previously on this site, many people felt they had been victimized enough by this system, and refused to participate further. (See, for example, the comments in this thread: http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2007/12/369499.shtml.) Even so, those who did respond to the surveys and questionnaires sent out by the consultants expressed overwhelming disapproval of the way that police accountability is being officially handled in Portland. Luna-Firebaugh actually refers to the IPR system as "demoralizing," and the report states, in part:
"According to the citizens we surveyed and interviewed, there is a high level of dissatisfaction with the Portland Police complaint investigation process. The community appears to be disillusioned with both the IPR and IAD investigative process and
disaffected by the appeal process as well. There is a widespread attitude that nothing will happen even if a complaint is filed and/or investigated. This attitude is evidenced not only in comments made during interviews, community meetings and on surveys, but also by the low numbers of complaints appealed to IPR/CRC after dismissal."
Part of the problem with the Portland system, according to these consultants, is that the city of Portland uses an auditor model of police oversight, in which one person (in this case, auditor Gary Blackmer) serves as a gatekeeper for police oversight. Further, it notes that this model is structured in such a way that it lacks transparency, and citizens are often left feeling as if they are not being heard or respected. In a nod to Portland culture, the report states, "In some cities this is less of a problem than in others, but in any city that has an involved citizenry and an activist community, a lack of transparency and community involvement in the process can have serious negative repercussions." And so it has.
The consultants also note that, whatever model is used, one of the most important components of any citizens review committee is that it "can assert the right to conduct independent investigations where necessary." Crucial in this is that the investigations are actually conducted independently, not by the police themselves. However, as stated above, this is not happening. As Luna-Firebaugh says, "A primary issue for Portland's IPR system is that although it has the power to conduct independent investigations, this power has never been used, and no independent investigation of any complaint, no matter how serious, has ever been conducted."
(Just to point out the obvious... That's a pretty significant defect in something that is being billed as an "independent police review" process. It kind of calls into question the whole thing, doesn't it? I mean, if it's not really independent, and not really reviewing anything, then... then it's just more "police," right?)
Regarding the transparency which is lacking in Portland, Luna-Firebaugh notes that transparency in these matters "is the means by which the public's right to know the public's business is ensured...." Nevertheless, the report points out a marked preference, on the part of IPR staff and particularly Blackmer, for working "behind the scenes" and "out of the public eye." According to a news story quoted in the report, Blackmer "says the Portland model avoids the posturing that comes with a public 'wrestling match'."
With more than a hint of irritation, Luna-Firebaugh notes, "...the 'behind the scene' approach subverts the move toward transparency that is a fundamental premise of civilian oversight." Blackmer's approach is especially unhelpful because, as noted in the report, "It fails to build public confidence in the civilian oversight process while it also fails to build understanding by police rank and file [of] the proper role of citizens in a democracy." If there is one thing that Portland police officers definitely need, I would say that it is an understanding of the role of citizens in a democracy.
Still, Luna-Firebraugh hastens to add, transparency alone will not be enough to solve all of the problems inherent in this system. As the report notes,
"If a police complaint system is not based on fairness to all, the public, the subject and witness officers, and the city government, all the transparency in the world will not help other than to reveal the worm in the core of the apple." ...Indeed. After the inexplicable killings, the beatings, the pepper sprayings, the racial profiling, and the rampant abuses of power suffered by Portlanders at the hands of the PPB, it is easy to imagine why auditor Blackmer had preferred to play things close to the vest on this. Surely there is a very big worm at the core of this apple, and no one in the city wants to reveal this to the public. (I will let you in on a secret, though. Virtually everyone in the city has seen this worm for themselves; we already know it's there.)
The problem with the lack of transparency, though, is that it leads to a lack of accountability, a lack of respect for citizens, and a lack of improvement. So long as the problems of the PPB can be safely covered up by a collusive oversight process, officers who violate the law are not punished, and the system is never forced to change. Luna-Firebaugh notes that, among the cases which she and her colleagues reviewed, there were numerous instances where clear evidence of officer misconduct existed, but the IPR failed to substantiate wrongdoing. And again, although it has the authority to investigate claims, the IPR has never once, in all its history, conducted an investigation into police conduct. In other words, even though Portland has an "independent" body of oversight into complaints against police on paper, the reality shows that there is no real oversight. Clearly, this would indicate a conflict of interests to any reasonable person. No one is looking out for the concerns and best interests of Portland citizens who have been victimized by the police.
Further, although one of the mandates of the IPR is to track patterns of complaints and initiate policy changes that could alleviate future problems, the Portland IPR has rarely ever initiated any policy or procedure changes. Members of the IPR would have been in a good position to do so. They are the ones who receive hundreds of complaints from the community every year about police misconduct, corruption, and violence. This kind of data should be used as the building blocks of an intelligent system that learns from its mistakes. But apparently, the IPR is not functioning this way, since their years of service have resulted in only a very few, very minor recommendations for policy changes, and even these were not based so much on public input as on ideas bandied about at retreats by the committee members themselves.
Another disturbing issue that was uncovered in this report concerns the Citizens Review Committee. The idea of citizen oversight seems, at first, to be a laudable one. And so it would be, if the committee were allowed to function as it should. But, alas, it never has. It's not that there aren't dedicated volunteers who want to make it work. But their ability to have any impact upon the review process, or indeed to even participate meaningfully in the process at all, has been so steadily and purposefully eroded that they are scarcely even involved at all anymore in the oversight system. To quote the report:
"The impressions of knowledgeable people are that the CRC is now essentially a bystander to the police compliant process. One City Council senior staff member said, 'The IPR operates very independently from the CRC.' The Oregon ACLU Director
stated that the CRC was set up 'on purpose' to be a passive body with no authority. This opinion was echoed by a Portland City Council staff person who stated 'the CRC is handpicked by the IPR to be a yes group.'"
In fact, there is a special sense of betrayal among Portland police accountability activists surrounding the CRC. The jaded manner in which officials offered this olive branch, while at the same time ensuring that it would never really bear fruit, was a calculated slap. The systematic way in which the CRC was de-toothed and robbed of any efficacy has served as a jagged reminder that the difference between symbolic politics and real, substantive change is a vast chasm. This reality is pondered at some length in the report, along with a careful delineation of the many other weaknesses in the Portland police review process.
Speaking of process, I was especially struck by the perception of one of the people whom Luna-Firebaugh interviewed for this project. I will let him speak for himself here. According to the report:
"A highly educated spokesperson for the African American community who has been active in Portland around police misconduct issues for more than ten years stated to this Consultant that if he was going to rate the IPR system including internal affairs, CRC, and IPR he would say, 'They'd get an F. They get an F because I think that... there's no results... There's no outcomes. And I think that part of the problem is, part of the problem with the city, the whole review process is that these folks will come up with these ideas that mistake process with the product.' This community leader went on to say, 'You can get it [the complaint form] online, you can do this, you can do that, well okay, that's the process, that's not a product. But they're selling the process as a product. They're making you think that you've actually accomplished something and so what that does is takes them off the hook.' This spokesperson went on to say, 'I don't think this process wants to be accountable at all. I think they want to stick with selling us a process and [for us to] think that they've accomplished what we want to have accomplished.'"
I think this is the nail being struck on the head. In fact, this city wallows in process. We have processes for everything. Every time another citizen is gunned down in the street "accidentally," because some officer "feared for his life" for no apparent reason, there is a process for dealing with it. Every time we are beaten and pepper sprayed and dragged away for daring to speak, there is another process. When we are stopped in our cars or harassed on the streets for no other reason than the color of our skin or the emptiness of our pockets, there is yet another process. But none of these processes ever results in any changes. No new policies, no sanctions, no satisfaction. Indeed, no justice.
Process without result is often worse than no process at all. Because it sets up an expectation that is never fulfilled. It gives the impression that, as the interviewee said, that something is being done when it isn't. This is more disrespectful than being honest about doing nothing. Because it assumes that we are ignorant. That we are unable to recognize that nothing is being done, that we are fools who are easily duped into complacency with this simple minded sleight of hand. In fact, we are not fools, and this is why we are angry.
"...it is not clear why admissions of wrongdoing or failure to follow clearly-established police bureau policy should be ignored and an officer exonerated, as was found in the consultant's review of IAD investigations."
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