Angry Latino activists ask Kroeker to step down
- Jennifer Anderson
- Portland Tribune - News
Firestorm erupts after officers involved in fatal shooting receive awards
For the second time in three years, community members have asked Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker to resign.
As he did before, he says he won't go.
He won't likely be asked to leave, either, according to an assistant to Mayor Vera Katz. The mayor and Kroeker are expected Monday to discuss community anger over the fact that during a recent police ceremony, the chief gave awards to the two officers who fatally shot a Mexican immigrant in a psychiatric hospital last year.
'He showed very poor judgment,' city Commissioner Jim Francesconi said. 'I think he unintentionally did a disservice to the police officers who were following procedure. He offended a community that is critical to our city, and he set back community policing all at once.'
Francesconi said he has asked the chief to re-examine the police award system and change it. 'I think he should apologize to the community,' he said. Other city commissioners were on vacation this week or otherwise unavailable for comment.
Kroeker, 58, will mark three years in Portland on Dec. 9. Earlier this week, he said the awards were bestowed on the officers because they followed bureau procedures, and their actions fit the criteria for the awards.
He said he doesn't regret honoring the officers but conceded that he should have explained the situation to the community beforehand.
'I regret that the signal we sent was misperceived,' he said. 'No disrespect was meant.'
His statement wasn't enough for Multnomah County Commissioner Serena Cruz, who was among the 100 people who staged a march downtown on Tuesday to voice their anger.
'I'm in 100 percent support of the community response to the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back,' she said. 'It's taken me to this point. After repeated instances, it's too much.'
Kroeker's critics include prominent leaders in the Latino and black communities, advocates for the homeless, county mental health officials and others who on Tuesday held signs reading: 'Portland City Hall doesn't work as long as Kroeker does,' and 'Courage with a gun is a Kroek.'
It's uncertain whether the recent flare-up will affect Kroeker's ability to continue leading the police bureau.
'This is going to create more difficulties with the rest of his term,' Francesconi said. 'It's how he works through these things that can make the difference.'
Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association, defended the chief's action. 'We are on very different pages, if not different worlds,' he said, referring to community members who were insulted by the awards. 'I believe the chief needs to stay the course.'
A term of controversy
It's not the first time Kroeker's actions have infuriated members of the community.
• In October 2000, the Portland Alliance newspaper uncovered taped comments from a decade ago in which Kroeker made derogatory statements about gays. While critics called for his resignation, the mayor initiated an independent group study to determine whether his beliefs would interfere with his work. When the study showed that they would not, Katz threw her support behind him.
• During several large events in Portland, including the May Day protest in 2000 and President Bush's visit in August, officers' use of force under Kroeker's command has been questioned.
• Most recently, some rank-and-file officers and community members took it as somewhat of an insult when Kroeker, a 32-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, sought the L.A. department's top post. When he lost, he renewed his five-year commitment to Portland.
'He's certainly not going to change his style or his beliefs,' said former Police Chief Penny Harrington, an outspoken critic of Kroeker who is now a police consultant in Los Angeles. 'He is who he is. So the question is, can Portland live with who he is?'
Elise Marshall, Katz's liaison to the police bureau, said the mayor is scheduled to meet with leaders of the Latino Network, the group that led the protests, at 9:30 a.m. Monday. Katz will meet with Kroeker at her regularly scheduled meeting with him at 3:30 p.m. Monday.
'She didn't tell me why, but she did tell me she's not going to ask him to resign,' Marshall said. 'From the letters and the e-mails and the rally, she does know the community is concerned. What she wants to start to do Monday is really peel back the onion to start to get at the issue.'
Acts of valor are focus
A lot of the community's concern has been over the process of honoring the officers. The awards are typically presented every year. But when the ceremony was canceled last year in the wake of Sept. 11, this year's awards covered the span of 18 months.
The award process, which is documented online at www.portlandpolicebureau.com, notes that a committee of 17 members, including officers of various ranks, votes to approve each award. As long as a quorum of eight members approves, the award passes.
'If there's any problem, they send it up the chain or down, and they ask for a justification,' said Sgt. Brian Schmautz, the bureau's public information officer. 'Their job is to look at the criteria, look at the actions and apply the actions to the criteria to apply the appropriate award.'
While there are many types of awards, the police award Ñ the one presented to officers Jeffrey Bell and Christopher Davis Ñ is given to 'any bureau or community member for an act of valor that distinguishes their action from normal service.'
Criteria include being exposed to personal danger, having a 'serious risk to their life,' using deadly force, using 'good judgment' and acting 'properly to protect people or property with less regard for their own well-being than for the well-being of the person or property they were protected.'
Katz was not involved in the process of selecting the awards, Marshall said. The Nov. 19 ceremony was public, and media were invited to attend.
Activists express frustration
The controversy began when Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot, a 29-year-old man who suffered from epilepsy and didn't speak English, was killed in the now-closed Pacific Gateway Hospital in Sellwood on April 1, 2001. He had been jailed and then involuntarily committed to the hospital after being arrested for scuffling with police officers on a TriMet bus.
Mejia, who hadn't taken his epilepsy medication for nine days, began acting out. Officers were dispatched to the hospital to control him. They spoke to him in Spanish, used a can of pepper spray, held out a metal baton and fired beanbag rounds. When Mejia pulled an aluminum rod from a door and walked toward them, they shot him.
A grand jury exonerated the officers, but the Latino community has remained angry. 'We are here today to admit that our efforts to be cooperative and give the police the benefit of the doubt have not paid off,' said Martin Gonzalez, head of the Latino Network.
The officers did as they were trained to do, Schmautz said. 'These are long-standing policies in place. Chief Kroeker didn't make them up. He said if citizens want to look at the criteria for the shootings, our training is open.'
Harrington said although officers apparently followed procedure, most systems of giving officers awards across the country do not make sense.
'I think our whole award system in policing is backward,' she said. 'Even if they were legally correct in what they did, that situation was such a mess.'
Schmautz said the bureau now has at its disposal a 'taser,' a less-lethal weapon that officers have deployed dozens of times on suspects. The bureau's crisis intervention team Ñ a group of officers who receive special training to deal with the mentally ill Ñ has doubled in size since Mejia was shot.