Oops! Errant e-mail shows city failed to keep all records on cop shootings
Officials go on 'weird' quest to retrieve printouts mailed out accidentally
The Portland Police Bureau failed to keep all records relating to police shootings and in-custody deaths between 1997 and 2000, contrary to Oregon law.
Bureau officials say they are now complying with the law. However, many records are missing from 34 old cases being studied by a California consultant on behalf of the Independent Police Review Division of the city auditor's office.
The study was commissioned because police shootings and in-custody deaths are frequently controversial, as the recent Kendra James killing shows.
The report is scheduled to be presented by the end of August to the citizens committee that reviews complaints against the police.
City Auditor Gary Blackmer and IPR Director Richard Rosenthal learned about the missing records a couple of months ago. Instead of discussing the potential problem with the nine members of the Citizen Review Committee, however, Blackmer and Rosenthal tried to prevent them from learning about it, according to sources close to the situation.
Among other things, after information about the problem was accidentally mailed to the members, Rosenthal personally drove to their homes to pick it up.
According to the sources, Rosenthal exchanged a series of e-mails about the problem with Oren Root, deputy director of the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center, the firm conducting the study.
Somehow, printouts of the e-mails were accidentally stapled to the back of meeting agendas mailed to review committee members in May.
After Rosenthal realized what had happened, he sent the members an e-mail telling them not to read the material. Blackmer and Rosenthal then decided that Rosenthal should retrieve the errant correspondence.
Blackmer said, 'We felt it was an issue that needed to be kept in abeyance until it could be understood and dealt with' in a report on the consultant's study.
When Rosenthal went to retrieve the correspondence on May 15, sources said, he arrived unannounced, late at night in some instances. In one case, Rosenthal reportedly called the cell phone of a committee member who was on a date. He is said to have asked the member to break off the date and return home, but the member politely declined.
'It was weird. They started calling each other and comparing notes about the visits,' a source said.
Rosenthal would not comment about his attempts to retrieve the correspondence.
What's not there
The cases under review occurred between Jan. 1, 1997, and July 1, 2000. Missing records include officers' notebooks, audio recordings of interviews and videotapes of crime scenes. The e-mails between Rosenthal and Root suggest that such records are missing in a majority of the cases under review.
Blackmer declined to discuss how the missing records might affect the review.
'We were going to include the information on it in the review. You'll have to wait until it comes out to learn the details,' Blackmer said.
Citizen activist Dan Handelman said he was shocked to learn of the missing documents and the efforts to keep the problem secret.
'This is disturbing,' said Handelman, who heads CopWatch, an organization that supports full civilian oversight of the police. 'I don't know whether I'm more concerned that the police may have tried to cover up something or that the IPR director tried to cover up the information about it.'
State law sets minimum lengths for the retention of public records. The long-standing law requires all records on homicides to be kept permanently. The minimum time that records are to be maintained on other types of cases is five years.
The rules for records
Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a Portland police spokesman, said there was no consistent bureau policy on retaining such records until Mark Kroeker was appointed police chief in 2000. Shortly after taking over the helm of the bureau, Schmautz said, Kroeker initiated new policies requiring that all records be retained in criminal investigations.
The auditor's office adopted a series of rules spelling out the requirements for all city agencies many years ago. The rules governing the police bureau include instructions that detectives must follow state law regarding all 'incident reports, notes, Portland Police Data System reports, other incident reports, background material, photographs, crime scene sketches, and other materials used to investigate a crime or suspect.'
Record-keeping, Blackmer said, 'was a problem, but we've discussed it with the bureau, and now they know the retention schedule.'
Mayor Vera Katz is on vacation and was unavailable for comment. Sam Adams, her chief of staff, said he did not know about the missing records until Blackmer contacted him after being called by the Portland Tribune.
The issue of who can review police shootings and in-custody deaths has long been controversial.
The City Council created the current police review system in late 2001. At the time, civilian oversight activists argued that the citizens committee should be able to review police shootings and in-custody death cases. The Portland Police Association Ñ the union that represents police officers Ñ opposed giving the panel such authority.
The City Council ultimately prohibited the committee from investigating such cases. But it also authorized the auditor's office to contract with an outside firm for the current study.
Since then, activists have continued to argue that the committee should have the authority to review police shootings and in-custody deaths. The issue surfaced again at Tuesday evening's community forum on James' shooting by a police officer in May.
Relations between many of the committee members and Blackmer and Rosenthal have been tense for months. The members complain that Blackmer and Rosenthal do not take them seriously and are micromanaging their reviews of police Internal Affairs investigations.