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City police watchdog wants more bite

Accountability at issue in struggle to alter Portland's police review system


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland's Independent Police Review Division audits Internal Affairs investigations of police misconduct. In some cities, citizen watchdog groups conduct their own full-scale investigations after citizen complaints about police. But effectiveness can be as much about relationships as the oversight model, experts say.In San Francisco, the city office that watchdogs the police has a $5 million annual budget and a paid staff of 35. When someone complains about a police officer, the Office of Citizen Complaint Investigators conducts its own investigation.

Every police officer, from the chief on down, must submit to interviews with the investigators.

In Chicago, the citizen agency that investigates complaints against police can file charges against officers — independent of the police internal affairs division — with the assistance of the state’s attorney.

Even in Los Angeles, where the civilian oversight agency operates under the authority of the city’s police commission, every police officer, including the chief, is required to sit for interviews and can be terminated if they refuse.

Not in Portland.

Here, complaints against police are handled by an office that cannot compel officers to meet with them. Even when officers accused of misconduct submit to interviews, independent investigators only talk to them with a police bureau liaison in the room.

And discipline, when warranted, is ultimately left up to the chief of police, who doesn’t have to explain his decision to the city’s watchdog agency — the Independent Police Review Division.

Portland’s independent police review process was challenged two weeks ago by city Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, who claimed the Police Bureau had an accountability problem. Griffin-Valade is pressing for changes to the review system.

Nearly every major city in the country has a civilian police oversight office, and virtually each is configured differently, says Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Some cities allow their watchdogs to do in vestigations and some prefer to wait for police to investigate their own, which they then review. Some can impose discipline independent of police and some can’t. Some watchdogs are embedded in the police

departments and others are independent.

But certain principles are vital if citizen oversight of police is going to be effective, says Buchner, who also serves as a special investigator with the Los Angeles Police Commission’s Office of Inspector General. The watchdog agency, he says, has to have access to police officers. And the police have to provide records or data the watchdog agency requests.

In Portland, IPR only conducts evaluations of cases to decide whether they warrant full investigation by the bureau’s Internal Affairs division. It gets the records it wants, but can only request an interview with a police officer. And they don’t always get the interview, especially when the officer is high up the chain of command. City code does not compel police to talk to the IPR.

Access has to extend all the way up and down the chain of command, Buchner says. “If you have access to lieutenants and below, it doesn’t make sense to me that there would be a distinction that you wouldn’t have access to captains and above,” he says.

Independent investigations

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade is pushing for changes to the Portland police citizen review process.But that’s not the way it works in Portland. That’s why Auditor Griffin-Valade two weeks ago sent a scathing memo to city commissioners in which she wrote, “Accountability continues to be a problem with the Police Bureau.”

Griffin-Valade wrote that the City Council’s lack of action on key issues “broke faith with the Department of Justice and breached the public’s trust that police accountability in Portland is taken seriously by city leaders.” And, she was well aware that in a city auditor’s community survey last year, only one in three respondents rated IPR’s efforts to regulate police conduct as good or very good.

Griffin-Valade’s complaint was inspired by two recent incidents involving high-ranking officers who, she says, were able to avoid thorough investigation and fair discipline. In one, a police officer chosen to investigate complaints against a supervisor of a division that includes internal affairs, Mike Kuykendall, was unqualified and delivered a “wholly inadequate” investigation, according to Griffin-Valade. Only after the IPR demanded a more complete investigation, she says, did police assign a more qualified investigator who found “serious misconduct.” Kuykendall resigned.

In the second incident, according to Griffin-Valade, Assistant Chief Eric Hendricks, who had authority for Internal Affairs investigations, on his own told Internal Affairs to drop an investigation. The IPR found out informally that the investigation into Capt. Mark Kruger had been halted.

Griffin-Valade says that both incidents show why IPR should have the ability to conduct its own independent investigations, especially of high-ranking police officials. And, she says, IPR should have the authority to compel all officers, including the chief, to submit to interviews.

Level of tension

The very nature of citizen oversight ensures there will be tension between police and watchdog organizations, Buchner says. And that tension seems to exist regardless of what model cities have chosen. Seattle, Buchner says, has a model that stresses independence and yet has come under criticism for appearing to be too close to the police department.

Alternatively, in Los Angeles, where the oversight agency is administratively tied to police, Buchner says benefits have been realized that Portland’s system is still fighting to gain.

“We have a particularly close relationship with the police department that some oversight agencies don’t have,” Buchner says. “Some agencies are fighting to get access to law enforcement employees. Some agencies are fighting to have a seat at the table, and we don’t have those same fights in Los Angeles anymore.”

Independence appears to be built into Portland’s system, but authority and cooperation are being sacrificed, according to Griffin-Valade. Further evidence: If the citizen review board here disagrees with the chief’s choice of discipline, there isn’t much they can do — disciplinary decisions are not subject to administrative appeal.

San Francisco has swung its pendulum away from the Los Angeles model. In San Francisco, the Office of Citizen Complaints is separate from the police department and has incredible authority, in some situations, over it. Complaints about police officers aren’t investigated by Internal Affairs. The Office of Citizen Complaints is in charge of those, with its own investigators. The office writes a report and makes a recommendation of discipline to the police chief, who decides on the discipline.

If the citizen watchdog office doesn’t agree with the chief’s discipline decision, it can file charges with the city’s police commission. And, according to Joyce Hicks, director of the Office of Citizen Complaints, she has done just that and succeeded in getting police officers fired after the chief recommended less severe discipline.

Hicks likes the San Francisco model of independence from the police department. “It’s good that there’s tension,” she says. “You want to be able to maintain your objectivity. You want to not be part of the organization because it could cloud your judgment.”

And Hicks says the level of tension between police and her watchdog agency doesn’t reflect the amount of power given to citizen oversight. More important, she says, is that both sides know what is expected of them and that they must comply.

Several years ago, Hicks says, her office couldn’t get documents it requested from the police department. The office complained to the city’s police commission, which adopted a resolution telling police precisely how many days they had to produce documents or explain why they would not. In addition, a quarterly report is produced that discloses how long it is taking police to produce documents.

Now, Hicks says, police provide her the documents she requests. The solution, in her mind, wasn’t a closer tie to police. Instead, she says, the solution was clearly delineated authority that both sides recognize, and learn to accept.

“I think the more authority you have, ultimately the less friction you will have because the jurisdictional lines are clear,” Hicks says.

Consistent guidelines

Clearer jurisdictional lines are part of what Griffin-Valade and IPR Director Constantin Severe have been seeking.

As part of Portland’s recent settlement with the federal Department of Justice, the Independent Police Review office will get three new investigators. But according to Griffin-Valade, the city’s police union continues to stand in the way of more systemic changes that would allow IPR to more fully conduct investigations on its own.

For example, according to Severe, city code doesn’t require accused officers to talk to IPR investigators. Most do anyway, but not top level command staff. Severe says IPR needs the authority to compel all police bureau members to cooperate fully with its investigations, and without a police liaison in the room.

When Internal Affairs conducts an investigation of an officer, IPR staff are allowed to sit in on interviews and are given access to documents they request, according to Severe. That works most of the time, but not when high-level staff, such as Hendricks and Kuykendall, are involved, he says. When top brass are involved, according to Severe, each case is handled

differently.

Griffin-Valade and Severe say that they can hold police more accountable if they can get guidelines that dictate exactly what consequences will result from specific police action, and a transparent reporting system so the public knows each case is being handled the same way. Currently, Severe says, it frequently appears that Police Bureau connections dictate the severity of punishment more than the actual misconduct. A discipline matrix would force the bureau to impose consistent discipline, he says.

Griffin-Valade says a matrix for disciplines could save the city a lot of money. “We don’t have a good track record in arbitration,” she says.

In recent years, the city has had to pay huge sums of money to settle citizen lawsuits triggered by officer misconduct. Griffin-Valade says consistent discipline guidelines would allow the city’s attorneys to show each incident was handled the same way — by the book.

System is working

Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, did not respond to an interview request for this story. In addition, Police Chief Mike Reese was unavailable.

But Will Aitchison, former attorney for the Portland police union and an expert on police labor law, says Griffin-Valade and Severe are asking for too much without providing evidence backing up their requests.

Aitchison says there is no evidence that civilian oversight of police increases or decreases police misconduct, regardless of the model. And Portland’s process, he says, is better than most.

“I think the system in Portland is working,” Aitchison says.

Aitchison says a disciplinary matrix would handcuff police administrators’ obligation to treat each officer on an individual basis, considering mitigating circumstances and past work record before handing out

punishment.

And, he says the auditor’s demand to get full access to interview all police officers without a liaison present would be counterproductive, because legally, only a Police Bureau employee can compel an officer to answer questions.

“Where’s the evidence that you are more effective at questioning without the police liaison in the room?” Aitchison says. “Nobody’s ever done that study.”

Aitchison says Griffin-Valade and Severe are focused on moving Portland to a system in which IPR conducts its own investigations, and he doesn’t think that is necessary, because there is no empirical evidence it would help make police more

accountable.

Severe says public trust might be one reason for the change.

“We don’t live up to what the city is about: being transparent and open and having information available to our community members and treating them like adults,” he says.

But, he calls the overall oversight structure in Portland “pretty robust.” Severe likes the fact that IPR gets all police data and records, and says that’s a function of the IPR being run through the city auditor’s office. The auditor has authority to request and receive records from all city agencies.

In addition, Severe says it is a plus that IPR can monitor all officer-involved shooting investigations and has a seat at the table when the police review board makes a recommendation.

As Griffin-Valade and Severe continue to press for change to Portland’s oversight process, they might heed a lesson from San Francisco. There, Director Hicks says, a culture of better cooperation between police and her independent office has evolved, but the underlying reason isn’t the system’s configuration.

“What can force the department to cooperate with us is public opinion, I would think,” Hicks says.