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Consultant wants city police oversight overhaul

Report calls for more independent, aggressive office with stronger citizen review authority

An Arizona consultant recommended this afternoon that Portland overhaul its Independent Police Review division, saying the city's system of civilian police oversight 'does not have the confidence of the community.'

Eileen Luna-Firebaugh's six-month study looked at the functioning of the IPR office, which essentially watchdogs how the Portland Police Bureau investigates allegations of officer misconduct.

Luna-Firebaugh, a veteran of municipal police oversight agencies who now is a professor at the University of Arizona, concluded that IPR needs to be more aggressive in becoming involved in the PPB's internal investigations, including utilizing its already-granted authority to conduct fully independent investigations as it sees fit. IPR has not yet used that authority in its six-year existence.

Luna-Firebaugh also said that the citizens review committee - often described as the public's window into how the Portland Police Bureau conducts its investigations - should have more power and independence.

Specifically, Luna-Firebaugh said that the citizens committee, which currently is more of an advisory body, should:

• Be granted authority and direction over a city staff person.

• Be granted direct authority on whether to consider the appeals filed by citizens who are dissatisfied with the outcome of their complaints. Currently that authority rests with the IPR director.

• Be granted authority to direct IPR staff to conduct independent investigations, rather than relying on police bureau internal investigators

The city's elected auditor, Gary Blackmer, helped design the city's IPR system and now oversees it. Contacted by the Portland Tribune, he said he had not had time to digest the report but would evaluate its recommendations carefully. In the past, he has raised questions about Luna-Firebaugh's methodology and public opinion research, saying her research focused too much on IPR critics.

Dan Handelman, a volunteer with the group Portland Copwatch, and frequent critic of IPR, said he felt the recommendations did not go far enough, but 'Those recommendations are good recommendations. That's one of the things that we've been talking about for years, that people don't trust police to investigate police.' Using the IPR's authority to conduct its own investigations 'will lead to more accountability and more public trust,' he added.

Though the report said IPR could be improved, it did not say the city's police-review office was a failure. In addition to Luna-Firebaugh's other recommendations, she suggested a more aggressive public outreach program as well as a number of other more bureaucratic and procedural changes.

'The city of Portland Independent Police Review Division has much to recommend it,' wrote Luna-Firebaugh in her report. 'The strengths of the system are clear and well developed ... However, a number of additions or changes could be made to the system that would improve it substantially.'

Nor was she critical of the Portland Police Bureau.

'From an assessment of public information, the PPB is not a troubled department. On the contrary, the PPB is progressive, and generally well managed,' Luna-Firebaugh wrote, adding that the question is why the public is so dissatisfied with IPR.

Reached while at a conference in Washington D.C., Mayor Tom Potter said he had only read the executive summary, not the full 186-page report but that the recommendations seemed to "make sense" and would be a good foundation for discussion with Blackmer and the City Council.

As for the recommendation that members of the IPR citizens committee be allowed to initiate an independent investigation - which appears likely to be opposed by the police union - Potter said he is not opposed to it, but would need to review the report more closely.

In general, he favors giving citizens more authority and independence, saying more transparency and accountability could only help IPR's credibility with Portlanders.

"I think that obviously we have the citizens there for a good reason," he said.

Portland Police Association President Robert King could not be reached for comment.

IPR Director Leslie Stevens, who Blackmer oversees, also could not be reached for comment. She was meeting with Chief Rosie Sizer concerning a job Stevens has applied for, heading the bureau's new Office of Professional Standards - designed to be an internal watchdog on officers.

Blackmer said he didn't know the status of Stevens' application, but complimented her work for IPR.

'She's a great person and I would hate to see her go,' said Blackmer.