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Police threaten boycott of city watchdog hearings

Portland Police Chief Larry O’Dea is demanding that the city’s civilian police review committee crack down on audience behavior following a meeting that featured shouting, jeers and water thrown in a volunteer committee member’s face.

The letter penned by O’Dea essentially threatens a boycott of public hearings held by the Independent Police Review division. That would represent a significant new low in relations between the two agencies since the watchdog group was founded in 2001.

“I can no longer support having my employees participating in this environment unless and until steps are taken to address my serious concerns,” O’Dea wrote to IPR director Constantin Severe on March 31.

At Wednesday night’s meeting of the IPR’s Citizen Review Committee, audience members repeatedly interrupted to yell criticisms of the Portland Police Bureau and of Capt. Mark Kruger personally as the Drugs and Vice Division manager argued on behalf of one of his officers.

The committee came down on the side of the audience, voting 5-2 to challenge the bureau’s dismissal of a complaint of unprofessional behavior. But following the vote, one of the police critics threw water in the face of a committee member at the end of the meeting.

Severe, in an interview, said his office will address what he called a new level of poor audience behavior shown at the meeting. “That has never happened before,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”

“We’re looking at trying to institute some kind of safety plan so that everybody has the opportunity to be heard in a respectful environment,” he added.

Camera grab

The meeting focused on a video recording of an incident from last October in which vice cop Scott Groshong got out of a bureau SUV outside Central Precinct to engage with Robert Lee West, who frequently films police. YOUTUBE - Officer Scott Groshong's grasp of an activist's camera caused the city police review committee to recommend discipline.

According to the video, Groshong walked straight up to West and his camera, grasping it by the lens as if to block it from filming. “Sir, I’m sorry, how can I help you?” he can be heard saying. Then, apparently recognizing West, he said, “Oh, you know who you are? I know who you are,” smiled, spun around, got back in the truck and drove away.

West, who describes himself as the videographer for the group Film the Police 911, told the committee that he devotes considerable time to seeking out police officers and filming them. He said he’s posted roughly 3,000 videos in the last two years. Police arrested him on March 30, the day before the hearing, saying he’d interfered with police work by sneaking behind police lines to film an arrest. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Robert Lee West devotes much of his time to seeking out and filiming Portland police. He was arrested last week after, police say, for sneaking behind police lines to film an arrest.

At the meeting, Kruger defended Groshong, saying it wasn’t clear he grabbed the camera. Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner contended Groshong tried to block the camera from invading his personal space.

But committee members and Severe, the IPR director, disagreed, saying it was Groshong who invaded West’s space to grab the camera. Capt. Derek Rodrigues of the bureau’s internal affairs unit sided with Severe, saying the camera grab was poor form by Groshong.

Audience members jeered Kruger as he spoke, alluding to past controversy over his admitted interest in Nazi German history. One police critic, Charles Johnson, gave Kruger Nazi salutes and spoke with a fake German accent.

It was Johnson who, at the end of the meeting, threw water in the face of a committee member, James Young, who said he lacked sufficient evidence to challenge the bureau’s decision to not discipline Groshong.

While committee members reminded the audience of ground rules prohibiting personal attacks, that did not go far enough, said Turner, the union president, in a March 31 email sent to his members.

“The CRC chair, the city auditor, several city attorneys in attendance, and the director of IPR allowed the volatile conduct and abuse to continue with little interference or intervention,” he wrote. “It is unacceptable that with all the city officials present, not one stopped this meeting to remove the offending participants before things escalated to the point of near assault.”

Turner urged his members not to attend the meetings.

Strained relations

Relations between IPR and the Portland police have been strained in recent years, even as the civilian review process has gained in power and seemingly become more aggressive. The committee’s vote to challenge the bureau is the fifth of its kind for 2015 complaints, according to IPR.

Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, who was at the meeting, has tracked the city’s police oversight system for decades. He said that while he personally didn’t condone the audience behavior, he feels the police response is overblown.

“The worst thing that happened did not happen to a police officer,” he said. “The behavior before that was disruptive and there was some name-calling and stuff, but that’s not dangerous.”

Handelman said the union has never encouraged members to attend meetings. He thinks the police response is being exaggerated to undermine the committtee’s work.

“I think they were looking for an excuse to say that they don’t want to send their (officers). It’s unfortunate that because there were people speaking out of turn, they got their excuse.”

City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who oversees IPR, also sat in the audience during the hearing. She said in an email later that she shares the concerns about how things went.

The city is trying to figure out how to deal with disruptions in light of a recent federal ruling that limited public agencies’ ability to bar people from public hearings, she said.

“A handful of people in the audience were determined to disrupt the proceedings,” Caballero wrote. “It was distressing that the meeting ended with one audience member assaulting a volunteer because he disagreed with his vote.”