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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ordinance Changes Called "Next Phase" in Push for Police Review Board Transparency

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Jan 17, 2013 at 12:59 PM

After calling out Police Chief Mike Reese in the O for merely demoting a captain the bureau's own Police Review Board overwhelmingly wanted to fire, the city's Independent Police Review director tells the Mercury that she and the city auditor want new legal language requiring chiefs to spell out all discipline in future Police Review Board reports—with an explanation every time that discipline differs from the board's recommendation.

That change would correct some of the flaws in the city's Police Review Board ordinance, as we reported this week. But pushing that change will almost certainly spark a big fight with the police bureau, which only begrudgingly allowed redacted summaries of Police Review Board hearings to be made public (just twice a year) starting in 2011. The bureau has maintained that discipline decisions are confidential and shielded by state law and says it releases decisions only when the DA's office tells it to.

"The purpose of these reports is to show the community that the police bureau is holding people accountable. If we don't know what the final discipline decision is, and what the reasons are for departing from those recommendations, then the community doesn't have that information. That's an important piece of accountability," says Mary-Beth Baptista, director of the IPR. "I don't see a strong argument against that from an oversight perspective, and I don't see a strong argument against that from a community perspective."

Baptista says the auditor's office would look to piggyback on changes already in the works as part of the bureau's settlement with the US Department of Justice on its excessive use of force against people with mental illness. City council passed the ordinance creating the Police Review Board in 2010 and it started running in early 2011 after the Portland Police Association withdrew a labor grievance blocking it during contract negotiations. The feds want to add more civilian members to the review board.

"We know the ordinance is going to be reopened. There are things the DOJ has required of us that are going to change, assuming those changes stay in the agreement," Baptista says. "But the changes we recommend may not be limited to the changes the DOJ recommends."

Baptista sits on the Police Review Board and votes on discipline cases. She also knows—separately, because of her role as IPR director—how Reese decides on discipline. But she says she's bound by confidentiality agreements and can't comment even generally on how often discipline varies from the review board's recommendations.

"If we're going to be diligently going though files and working through these cases and making such strong recommendations, and they aren't fulfilled, we have to take a moment and say 'what's the purpose of this board? Are we being heard? Is our time being used correctly? Are we looking at the right things?" says Baptista, a former prosecutor. "The community has to be able to say somebody's off here. Either it's the board. Or the chief. If, for example, 95 percent of the time, the chief's following it, that's going to make people feel good about accountability."

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