City council was almost empty yesterday afternoon by the time the commissioners took up an important issue of police oversight—the crowds and TV crews that arrived for the vote on Arizona's "un-American" immigration law had cleared out. Pretty much the only person not paid to be in the room was Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman. But, boy, did he have a lot to say.
Copwatch's concerns about the police oversight have their basis in numbers that show a very slim number of complaints against police result in disciplinary action against an officer. The most recent change to the police investigation process, says Handelman, will bias the process more heavily in favor of officers at a time when just over one percent of complaints are sustained.
The complaint review process is complicated, so we drew up this handy chart showing the percent of civilian complaints that wind up being actually sustained against officers. The numbers, from 2009, are rounded so they don't add up perfectly to 100 percent in some cases.
Handelman ripped into a change in the police review board policies up for debate at council that had, for some reason, not been brought before the stakeholder committee on police oversight that met on Thursday, June 10.
Here's the deal: Currently, when a citizen complains about an officer and the case comes before the police review board (comprised of one citizen and four police), the officer's supervising commanding officer presents his or her investigation of the complaint. After hearing about the investigation, the boards decide whether or not the complaint against the officer is valid. If it is, they "sustain" the complaint, if not, the officer is exonerated.
But under the last-minute change, now the supervising officer will be able to vote along with the board on whether or not the complaint is valid. "It's a clear conflict of interest," Handelman told the council. "On this police review board, which is not open to to the public... [should] the commander who supervises the officer on a daily basis be allowed to vote on the outcome?" Handelman pointed out that the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC) found in a 2003 report and a 2006 report that commanders supervising an officer should not be allowed to vote on the review committee when it looks at officer involved shootings, other deadly force cases, and in-custody death incidents.
Commissioner Randy Leonard thanked Handelman for his work on police oversight issues, but dismissed his concerns in this case, saying the switch was a small administrative change that was not worth the time of the stakeholder committee last week. "Review boards will not be run by police but by a professional mediator," noted Leonard. "I want to make sure we're giving this body the chance to do the things you said you wanted it to do."
Independent Police Review Assistant Director Constantin Severe also says the fears about commanding officers being biased and voting in favor of the officers they supervise is unfounded. "I don't think that's the way it works in practice—it's their boss," says Severe. "From the way it works in everything I've seen and people who have actual experience with this. These commanders, they take their role seriously as managers within the bureau." Because the supervisors know the accused officer well and is their boss, says Severe, "a lot of times the commanders are going to be the toughest person on that particular officer."