Portland police citizen review panel recommends policy changes 

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Portland’s Police Citizens Review Subcommittee is recommending that the Police Department Use of Force Review Committee be expanded to include more than just police officers.

The citizen subcommittee made the recommendation to City Manager Jon Jennings at its  July 8 meeting.

The subcommittee also forwarded other recommendations that were drafted at its previous meeting on June 24, and met in a closed-door session to discuss a police internal investigation.

Panel members who later voted unanimously agreed the investigation was thorough, objective, timely, and fair. One member of the seven-person body was absent and another, Maria Testa, abstained because she said the PCRS needs to be “more meaningful” in its review role.

“It’s killing me to participate in this,” she said after the vote.

The major change recommended by the subcommittee had to do with adding residents to the department’s use of force review panel, which now consists only of members of the Police Department. Ultimately, the PCRS would like to add two outside members: one from the PCRS, and one from the Employment Subcommittee for sworn police personnel. Both groups are subcommittees of the Civil Service Commission.

Adding these two members, however, will require an ordinance change. So in the interim, the group asked Jennings to appoint two non-Police Department city residents to the panel, since that does not require an ordinance change.

Police Cmdr. James Sweatt said the use-of-force review panel doesn’t necessarily make disciplinary recommendations but is more of a roundtable discussion group that forwards its concerns to an officer’s supervisor to be resolved.

Subcommittee member the Rev. Kenneth Lewis characterized the panel as an “after-action” kind of panel discussion. Testa said she expected the two additional members will be full participants in discussions and not just observers.

It was Lewis who initially asked for expanded representation at the subcommittee’s June 24 meeting, saying it would create a “reasonable citizen standard of review.”

The group had several other recommendations for Jennings in their memo.

The first is to have a better breakdown of the demographics of police interactions with individuals.

The second regards how complaint or commendation forms are worded. The group wants these forms to be rewritten at a sixth-grade level and wants them in several languages so city residents who don’t speak English as their primary language can understand them.

The third is for police to carry business cards with information on how to file a complaint or commendation, or for feedback in general.

The final recommendation is for the PCRS to review internal complaints from within the Police Department. The panel now reviews only complaints made by residents who interact with police, but not complaints made by police or their supervisors about their peers. The process is the same, the group was told, so it asked to be part of that process.

Most of those recommendations were approved without comment.

During a public comment section at the start of the meeting, Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, praised information provided by the Police Department last month regarding use-of-force used as it relates to both arrests and the total number of service calls. He said there were roughly 85,000 service calls in 2019, of which approximately 2,600 resulted in arrests; about 100 of those included the use of force.

He said this resulted in a very low use-of-force percentage.

“This is a tiny fraction of what (Portland police) do,” Kebede said.

However, he also said there is a need to look at narrowing police work because some service calls require police to act as health-care or mental-crisis workers, which is not what they are trained to do.

PCRS members agreed police officers shouldn’t be asked to serve in these roles, and also acknowledged an armed officer responding to a mental health crisis might inadvertently escalate a situation when a mental health worker wouldn’t.

“I agree 150 percent,” Lewis said. “I just don’t know if that’s within our purview.”

Sweatt said it’s obvious there aren’t enough resources for everyone in need in the community, which isn’t a problem the PCRS has to solve. But he said there are crisis workers at the Preble Street Resource Center who work with the Police Department as needed. Sweatt said these are situations where a person isn’t just depressed, but may be suicidal or armed with a weapon

“If we can stabilize the situation where a social worker can continue on with service without taking that person into custody, that’s the preferred method,” Sweatt said.

He said the Police Department uses Preble Street frequently, especially when working with “chronic individuals who refuse care or do not seek care,” and said Portland is a national training site for this kind of partnership.

However, Sweatt said he doesn’t agree that moving funding from the police to various health-care sources would solve all the problems. Defunding police has become a national call following the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died when an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The PCRS also discussed some longer-term goals, including reviewing the structure of the subcommittee; reviewing the 21st Century Police Report issued by the Obama administration; reviewing the process for giving feedback to the Police Department, and plans to increase education and outreach to the community about the PCRS.

The group generally meets once a month and met via Zoom on July 8. City Hall representative Jessica Gronden said the panel’s meetings usually are not recorded or broadcast, but the Zoom meeting was available to the public.

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