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Police-review turmoil seeps into public view

Issues of control, new appointments test system and members' patience

A behind-the-scenes fight within Portland's new police complaint review system has finally burst into the open.

Although the subject of Wednesday's City Council hearing Ñ who gets to recommend appointments to a citizen committee Ñ seemed insignificant, everyone involved in the fray says the real issue is not.

'The question is, who reviews police misconduct: independent citizens or politicians and bureaucrats who are part of city government, just like the police?' said T.J. Browning, a member of the Citizen Review Committee, which was created by the City Council 18 months ago to review complaints against the police.

To city Auditor Gary Blackmer, the question is: Who's in charge of the system Ñ the committee or him? The system that Blackmer developed created a separate unit within his office, called the Independent Police Review Division, to receive citizen complaints against the police. The citizen committee also is under the purview of the city auditor.

Under the system the City Council approved in December 2001, the Independent Police Review Division receives, screens, catalogs and forwards citizen complaints against the police to the police bureau's Internal Affairs Division.

If the person who filed the complaint is unhappy with the results of the investigation, he or she can appeal to the Citizen Review Committee, which then can recommend changes that Ñ if the police bureau declines to accept them Ñ can be appealed to the council.

'We are looking for citizen involvement, advice and counsel, but we do not believe the committee should run the system,' said IPR Director Richard Rosenthal.

The lack of authority frustrates committee members, who say Portlanders expect them to act when police do not behave professionally.

An example occurred earlier this year when a delegation from the city's Latino community formally asked the committee to review the controversial May 2001 arrest of Jose Victor Santos Mejia Poot, the Mexican national who was shot and killed by police at a psychiatric hospital a few days later. Although the committee voted to review the arrest, Blackmer directed his staff not to assist in the review, arguing that the committee lacked jurisdiction.

'We were asked to look into it, we voted to look into it, and then we were told it was none of our business. It's more than frustrating,' Browning said.

Forum feeds criticism

The controversy comes at a critical time for the city. The police are under intense criticism from minority and police oversight activists for their response to the May 8 fatal shooting of 21-year-old Kendra James by officer Scott McCollister.

The new review system was supposed to assure Portlanders that their complaints against police misconduct would be taken seriously. Blackmer gave the council an upbeat appraisal of the system's first year in May, when he said the system had improved communications between the police and citizens and decreased the time it takes to resolve complaints against the police.

But in fact, problems already were beginning to surface. In addition to the Mejia controversy, the committee also was questioning many of the internal rules Ñ called protocols Ñ that had been drafted by Rosenthal shortly after the committee was created. Several committees had been appointed to review and rewrite the protocols to give the committee more control over the appeals process.

Last month, the committee voted to create a subcommittee that would recommend replacement members to the council. The terms of a majority of the committee members are scheduled to expire in September.

Although the subcommittee would have included Rosenthal, Blackmer instead asked the City Council to give him the power to recommend the replacements.

Appearing before the council Wednesday, Blackmer argued that allowing the committee to recommend replacement members would be a conflict of interest. Browning said that allowing Blackmer to make the recommendations would undermine the committee's credibility.

In the end, the council backed Blackmer and gave him the power to recommend replacement committee members.

Night visits are a worry

Mere days before the council hearing, another simmering controversy became public. This one involved a study being conducted on behalf of the division into police shootings and in-custody deaths between Jan. 1, 1997, and June 30, 2000.

Earlier this year, the outside consulting firm conducting the study notified Blackmer and Rosenthal that some records were missing from the files in 34 cases. After Rosenthal accidentally mailed information about the missing records to committee members, Blackmer apparently tried to keep the news from them. At Blackmer's direction, Rosenthal visited all of the members at their homes to retrieve the mailing Ñ including some unannounced visits late at night.

Police officials say the missing records Ñ including handwritten notes made by detectives Ñ do not affect the substance of the investigations.

Despite the assurances, some committee members say the secrecy could undermine the final report.

'It looks bad that Blackmer and Rosenthal went to such lengths to keep things quiet. It looks like there's something to hide,' Browning said.