My View: Instability of police leadership a problem
Central Precinct Commander Robert King made a shocking admission last Friday. Speaking to the biweekly meeting of the Community Peace Collaborative, King said he has served under 13 police chiefs during his 28 years with the Portland Police Bureau. He made the remark while praising Oakland Deputy Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, Mayor Ted Wheeler's choice to be the next Portland chief.
The fact that Portland has had so many different police chiefs over the past three decades should concern all Portlanders. Police bureaus are paramilitary organizations with extraordinary authority, including the right to use deadly force. They are designed to follow a top-down command structure.
But many times, when the chiefs change, so does the entire management structure, including deputy chiefs, division heads and precinct commanders. How can the bureau stay focused on priorities — whether it's law and order, community or 21st-century policing — with such turnover? How could a business succeed if the CEO, top executives and department heads changed every few years? Who'd want to work for it?
I've witnessed such changes at the bureau longer than King.
My first job in Portland was serving as former Mayor Frank Ivancie's press aide in 1981. Before that, I did the same job for former Oregon Senate President Jason Boe in Salem. I knew nothing about City Hall politics before working for Ivancie, who had served on the City Council before being elected mayor the year before.
At the time, the bureau was overseen by then-Commissioner Charles Jordan. Then-Mayor Neil Goldschmidt had assigned the bureau to him, after hiring former Berkeley Police Chief Bruce Baker as chief.
Baker, who was seen as a liberal reformer, was not popular among many officers. Tensions had escalated within the community over several confrontations between white officers and the African-American community before I was hired. After I was a few days on the job, Ivancie's police driver invited me to the Portland Police Association bar for drinks after work. It was located on the top floor of a union-owned building in Southeast Portland. When we arrived, the place was packed with off-duty officers, both from Portland and other cities in town for training purposes.
Around 10 p.m., Jordan appeared on a news broadcast on a TV in the bar. Virtually all of the Portland officers turned and jeered at the screen, in front of those from out of town. Although I didn't know what led up to it, my immediate thought was, "This can't be good."
A short time later, Baker retired and Jordan announced he would launch a national search to replace him. Ivancie took the bureau from Jordan and appointed his own chief, Ron Still. Weeks of protests followed, led by the African-American community, whose leaders argued Ivancie should have supported Jordan. I couldn't see how the officers I'd met would have accepted Jordan's choice for chief.
Since then, I've covered the bureau for Willamette Week, my own paper PDXS, and now the Portland Tribune.
Chiefs have come and gone, frequently during scandals.
Penny Harrington, the first female chief, was forced out after her husband, Officer Gary Harrington, tipped off a drug suspect who was under investigation.
Richard Walker was dismissed after being accused of slapping a female officer during an argument in a parking garage.
Mark Kroeger was pressured out for being too militaristic.
Derrick Foxworth was fired for sexually explicit emails.
Larry O'Dea retired during a criminal investigation into O'Dea's accidental shooting of a friend during a hunting trip.
Two chiefs — Jim Davis and Lynnae Berg — were fired for budget disagreements with mayors in charge of the bureau. I can't remember what they were about.
People can question some of the changes. Harrington especially has her defenders, who think she was railroaded out of office, mostly because she was the first female chief of the male-dominatd bureau. Her husband's friend, Chinese restaurant owner Robert Lee, was aware of the investigation and possibly even cooperating with it at the time. But the revelation helped prompt former Mayor Bud Clark to dismiss her.
And after being pushed out by former Mayor Charlie Hales, Mike Reese was overwhelmingly elected Multnomah County Sheriff, where he, apparently, is doing a good job.
Even Reese's successor, Mike Marshman, made the final cut in Wheeler's national search for chief. But Wheeler already had promised to do the search before Hales appointed him during last year's campaign.
King, who met Outlaw last week, said he is very positive about her and personally committed to helping her succeed. Whether she stays in office long enough remains to be seen.