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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Police Bureau Refuses Citizen Panel's Request to Continue Investigating Excessive Force Claim

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 7:49 PM

Tensions erupted tonight between the Citizen Review Committee—the citizen panel charged with handling appeals of police misconduct cases—and a united front made up of the Portland Police Bureau and the city's Independent Police Review office after the bureau's internal affairs captain refused the CRC's request for further investigation of an excessive force complaint.

The complaint involves the 2010 arrest of a bicyclist whose arm was broken by a police officer. (The bicyclist later died, unrelated to the arrest, and is being represented by a relative and friend.) The CRC voted 6-3 at tonight's meeting to ask that investigators contact a second officer who was told by the first officer, according to the bicyclist's family, that he intentionally broke the bicyclist's arm.

It's a rare refusal, and recent changes in the ordinances governing the CRC don't make clear whether the nine-member panel has any recourse to actually compel the investigation. The changes, approved in December, just explain that the CRC can ask for further investigation.

Captain Dave Famous, who leads the police bureau's professional standards division, said he saw no reason to listen to the CRC because everyone else who already looked at the case—IPR Director Mary-Beth Baptista, North Precinct Commander Pat Walsh, and other bureau commanders—all agreed they had enough information to decide that the officer who broke the bicyclist's arm did nothing wrong. Famous also said there was no issue that the arm was broken, and that Walsh had already decided, no matter why the arm was broken, that the allegation of excessive could not be proved.

"I concur with the minority of the members of the CRC," Famous said, noting that the bureau normally has "a track record" of following through on such requests. "It's not necessary."

He was defended by Baptista, who said she wouldn't direct her staff to investigate in IA's stead because, at best, the statement about why the officer broke the bicyclist's arm was "hearsay."

CRC member Rochelle Silver offered an indignant, if rhetorical, reply: "If it makes no difference to the case, it will make no difference to the case. So why are we being denied this information?"

The vote came during what's called a case file review—a chance to see if the CRC has all the information it needs before scheduling a formal appeal hearing at which the complainants and any police officers would be called to appear.

So what's next? The CRC went ahead and scheduled the appeal hearing anyway, for its regular meeting next month. But as for the fallout from the refusal, who knows.

At a previous CRC meeting this year, deputy city attorney David Woboril dismissed the likelihood of the bureau ever saying no. The CRC's chairman, Jamie Troy, remembered that utterance when announcing the vote and lamented that, so soon after the ordinance change, the CRC is faced with "that whole part of the ordinance we haven't worked through."

I'm not optimistic—even though leaving such a question unbuttoned makes me wonder what "civilian" police oversight in Portland really means.

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