Citizen panel sends first case of 'unreasonable arrest' to council
The committee that reviews citizen complaints against the police has referred its first case in its 15-month history to the City Council.
After an emotional hearing that included accusations of a police cover-up, the Citizen Review Committee sent the Merrick Bonneau case to the council last week.
Bonneau, 26, was arrested at his parents' home Sept. 4, 1999. At the time, the police were looking for Bonneau's half-brother, Mitchell, who had been accused of domestic violence. The committee voted that the arrest was unreasonable, in part because Merrick looks black, while Mitchell is white.
Bonneau attended the hearing April 15 and accused the police of lying about the circumstances leading up to his arrest.
Because the police continue to insist the arrest was reasonable, the city code says the City Council must decide who is right. It could take months before the case reaches the council. Although the council created the Citizen Review Committee almost 22 months ago, it never adopted rules to govern such referral hearings. They need to be drafted by Richard Rosenthal, director of the Independent Police Review Division of the city auditor's office, which was created in January 2002, at the same time as the citizen committee.
'The council has to decide who should be able to testify at the hearing, what documents they can review, things like that,' he said.
Rosenthal says he will meet soon with City Hall staffers to begin discussion on what the rules should allow. He does not know when the rules will be written or approved, however.
'Until there was a case going to the council, it wasn't a priority of mine. Now it is, but I have other priorities, too,' Rosenthal said.
Bonneau said he can't believe the delay.
'This is ridiculous,' Bonneau said.
Citizen committee chairman Hector Lopez agrees. Lopez said he and the other committee members did not know any other steps were required before the case could go to the council.
'That's news to me,' he said.
The development is the second time one of the committee's votes has run into unexpected trouble in recent weeks. The other case concerns the late Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot, a Mexican national arrested by police March 30, 2001.
Last month the citizen committee voted to review an internal affairs investigation that cleared the officers who arrested Mejia of using excessive force. Although the committee had rejected the appeal in June 2002, it reversed the decision March 4 after deciding the original vote was a mistake.
Even though the committee formally suspended its rules to accept the appeal, the city attorney's office says the original vote must stand. As a result, Rosenthal and city Auditor Gary Blackmer have declared that the review division staff will not help the committee review the arrest investigation. Rosenthal and other division staff members normally help the committee interview those involved with the incidents and review investigative files.
'They're on their own,' Rosenthal said of the Mejia arrest review.
The committee is determined to press ahead, however. Last week, it appointed two members Ñ Vice Chairwoman Denise Stone and attorney Mia Butzbaugh Ñ to do a preliminary investigation.
Said Lopez: 'Clearly, there are different perspectives between the committee and the IPR on some issues. We are a city body and have a responsibility to follow the rules, but we also need to be responsive to the community and may need to suspend the rules to achieve that when necessary.'
Resolution is swifter
Despite the controversy, Blackmer thinks the current system is a vast improvement over the Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee, which it replaced.
'I feel very good about a lot of it,' said Blackmer, who first proposed the new system in early 2001.
According to Blackmer, the accomplishments will be apparent when he presents his first annual report on the system to the council May 6. Blackmer said most of the police review work is done by Rosenthal and his staff. Among other things, he credits them with creating the first comprehensive database on internal affairs complaints, initiating bureau policy reviews and reducing the time it takes to resolve appeals Ñ a City Council priority at the time the new system was created.
'It used to take a year or more for appeals to work their way through the system. Now two-thirds are being resolved in 50 days, and 90 percent are resolved within a year,' Blackmer said.
The division and committee have a number of ways to resolve such complaints. Since the new system began operating in January 2002, the division has received and evaluated 479 complaints alleging police misconduct. Of that number, 294 were referred to internal affairs for investigation, 115 were judged to not involve misconduct, 36 were resolved during the intake investigation, 27 were referred to another agency, six were sent to mediation, and one was referred to the Multnomah County district attorney.
Of the 294 complaints referred to internal affairs, 61 were appealed to the committee by dissatisfied citizens. As of now, 57 of those cases have been closed. The committee agreed with the findings in 40 of the cases, and the bureau agreed to change its findings 17 times. Four cases still are open, including Bonneau's appeal.
Although the results look good on paper, local police watchdog Dan Handelman said they cover a fatal flaw in the review system that is only now beginning to surface. Handelman, a member of Portland CopWatch and the Police Accountability Campaign, has attended and videotaped every committee hearing during the past 15 months. As he sees it, the current tensions are a result of the division director having more power than the committee.
'The director is supposed to negotiate disputes behind the scenes. That may work much of the time. But eventually there's going to come a time where the police won't compromise, and that's where the committee has a genuine role to play,' Handelman said.
Both Blackmer and Rosenthal agree the director plays a larger role in resolving police complaints than the committee. Unlike Handelman, however, they think that is part of the system's strength, not a weakness.
'The system provides many tools for resolving disputes between citizens and police, and appeal hearings are only one of them. Appeals don't necessarily prevent further problems from occurring. I'd rather prevent a future problem than deal with one after it happens,' Blackmer said.
Added Rosenthal: 'Because the committee is so public, people think that's the program. But the police auditing function that I perform is very important, and a large part of that does not take place in public.'
One case, two votes
The Bonneau and Mejia cases are not the only points of dispute between the committee and the city officials who are supposed to assist it. A number of committee members also are frustrated by the limitations of some rules established to govern their meetings.
The rules Ñ called protocols Ñ were drafted by Rosenthal and adopted by the committee as it began work. Although the members read the rules before approving them, several have proved difficult. For example, one protocol gives the police one last chance to challenge a committee finding it disagrees with.
Under this protocol, after the committee votes to send a case to the council, the police can request a 'conference hearing' to argue their case again. This request does more than merely require an additional hearing. It also invalidates the previous vote, requiring the committee to vote a second time to refer a case to the council if it does not change its mind.
Committee members were visibly surprised when this happened for the first time in the Bonneau case. The committee held two hearings on the case before originally voting to send it to the council March 18.
Although police representatives spoke at both hearings, Asst. Chief Derrick Foxworth requested a conference hearing so he could personally present the bureau's position that the arrest was reasonable. The hearing grew tense when Bonneau accused Foxworth of lying about the circumstances surrounding the arrest. Although Bonneau was charged with resisting arrest, he was acquitted during the subsequent criminal trial Ñ a fact he used to refute Foxworth's allegations that he struggled with police.
In the end, the committee rejected Foxworth's arguments. But then Rosenthal told the committee the protocols required them to vote again on whether to send the case to the council. Several members balked at the request, saying it made no sense. But in the end, the committee voted unanimously to send the case to the council again to make sure the referral could not be challenged on procedural grounds.
The committee also moved to review all of the existing protocols. Each member was assigned a protocol to review. Recommended changes will be made to the standing three-member Internal Procedures Committee to be considered at future meetings.
Rosenthal agrees such a comprehensive review is needed.
'There's always a difference between what rules are intended to do and how they work in the real world,' Rosenthal said.