Portland police review panel asserts its independence

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The citizen review panel that has routinely approved Portland police investigations broke with tradition last week when it decided two cases were not thorough, timely, objective, and fair.

Emily West, who chairs the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, and subcommittee member Maria Testa said these votes were not an indictment of the cases themselves, but rather a statement on the structure of the committee.

Testa said a lack of structure and definition about the role of the committee prevented her from voting that a case was conducted objectively.

“This is not an indication of anyone’s honesty,” she said. “It’s a structural objection.

Following an executive session, the PCRS typically votes on cases in one block to save time, West said. But it was clear the members did not all agree either case met those standards, so they voted on each one separately.

The group also decided to no longer have Portland Police Department representatives as direct panelists during its Zoom meetings. West said the police are still there to answer questions during executive sessions, but removing them as panelists was more about optics than anything else, saying it was a “show of independence.”

Most of the Oct. 14 meeting was spent in executive session discussing the two cases. However, the group did acknowledge its upcoming Nov. 11 meeting will feature a more substantive discussion on 10 proposals from Testa, who has been advocating to give the panel’s review process more authority.

The 10 proposals are:

• True independence; the absence of real or perceived influence from law enforcement and City Hall.

• A real budget and staff; current guidelines suggest no less than 2 percent of the Police Department budget.

• A hybrid committee structure, incorporating elements of investigative and review mechanisms.

• The ability to receive complaints directly from the public.

• The ability to interview complainants and witnesses, with subpoena authority.

• Decision-making authority and making recommendations with regard to outcome and discipline.

• Routine community outreach and engagement.

• A formal appeal process.

• An independent mediation mechanism.

• The capacity to provide jail oversight.

The only real discussion of the list on Oct. 14 was about the last item, since the Cumberland County Jail falls outside of the city’s purview. PCRS member the Rev. Kenneth Lewis said that item was “out of scope completely.”

Testa agreed the final point was not within their panel’s jurisdiction and said the proposals weren’t even necessarily her 10 favorite ideas. However, she said this was a step towards starting the conversation and “part of the world of oversight.”

Further discussion of the remaining proposals was pushed to November when the panel will again take up the suggestion that a citizen serve on the Use of Force committee, and that the PCRS review all complaints against the police – internal and external.

PCRS previously submitted those and other recommendations for a greater role in the review process to City Manager Jon Jennings, but received a lukewarm response, with Jennings pushing back on altering the existing review standard.