Portland police review panel sees ‘history repeating itself’ as its recommendations get chilly response

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Several members of the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee are questioning the response of Portland’s city manager to their desire for more participation in the Police Department review process.

Subcommittee members on Sept. 9 discussed City Manager Jon Jennings’ reply to a memo they sent earlier in the summer, outlining five immediate action ideas. Jennings and Police Chief Frank Clark were receptive to some of the ideas, but Jennings cited labor union constraints as a barrier to others.

The five recommendations were collecting better demographic information about people with whom police interact; revising and streamlining the complaint and commendation form and making it available in more languages; having police provide people with business cards with command information; placing two citizens on the department’s internal Use of Force Committee, and having the PCRS review internal complaints in addition to the external complaints it now reviews.

Part of Police Citizen Review Subcommittee member Maria Testa’s Sept. 9 remote presentation comparing the Portland panel’s operation to a committee in Providence, Rhode Island. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Jennings said the city is already taking action to collect better demographic information and making the complaint and commendation form more accessible.

Disagreement appeared, however, on the business card suggestion, where police said command structure changes enough so that information on the cards may frequently be outdated. And Jennings cited negotiated labor contracts in his rejection of the committee suggestion to include citizens on the department’s Use of Force Committee and having the PCRS review internal complaints.

Jennings told the panel the “reasonable officer” standard for use of force is based on a “landmark legal standard that has been developed through extensive case law.” 

“For many reasons, it would be inadvisable for us to alter that standard, even within our internal review,” Jennings wrote. “Although this could further stifle police staff from their ability to be self-critical, I can also see some value in having a perspective on use-of-force incidents from outside of the Police Department. Because this is a complicated issue that could also have labor implications, Chief (Frank) Clark and I will continue exploring our options for bringing additional perspective to the use of force review process.”

But the Rev. Kenneth Lewis, who previously called for a “reasonable citizen” review standard to be applied when force is used, and other members of the subcommittee disagreed with Jennings.

“My response is that although it is a landmark legal standard, we know that landmark legal standards are not always appropriate,” Lewis said, citing the U.S. Supreme Court case Plessey v. Ferguson, in which the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation was upheld.

“I think it is important for us to participate in this,” he said.

Lewis said while he was not trying to be adversarial to the Police Department, building a better community and having better engagement makes it important to have more voices and different points of view in the discussion.

“I just think having a different point of view in the room, someone that’s not going to be afraid of 10 police officers sitting around the table to give their thoughts on what a reasonable citizen might feel, is vitally important to building and enhancing the overall trust between the citizens and the Police Department,” Lewis said. “Citing the case law falls flat for me, that doesn’t do it for me.”

Lewis and others, including subcommittee member April Fournier and Chairperson Emily West, also rejected the idea that citizen input might stifle department reviews.

“You’re not going to be open and honest because someone’s in the room?” Lewis said. “That to me, this particular statement doesn’t speak well for the officers I’ve come to know and work with in various ways. That’s the part that strikes me in this particular piece. That this will stifle an officer from providing feedback, productive and constructive feedback around these instances to their colleagues, and somehow a citizen in the room will stifle that. That’s just really challenging for me to believe.”

Jennings also said he would not propose an ordinance amendment or recommendation that the PCRS review internal police complaints. 

“In addition to potential labor implications, the Police Department has worked long and hard to foster an atmosphere where officers and supervisors understand the expectation that they report concerns about their colleagues and are comfortable doing so,” Jennings told the subcommittee. “The very last thing the City wants to do is stifle that willingness to report potential wrongdoing by other members of the Police Department.”

Lewis again disagreed, saying he believes there is a benefit to having the subcommittee look at internal and external complaints. He said if the process of review is the same for both, and follows existing internal affairs protocol, he didn’t see the harm in creating what he said is effectively a department audit.

“We talk about potential labor implications, that continues to come up with items and I know that’s an important piece, but I don’t know how this inhibits the atmosphere of engagement with colleagues,” he said. “I think change and progress are inherently uncomfortable. If we’re going to always lean on what’s comfortable, everything will stay exactly the way it is.”

West also said she didn’t understand how allowing the PCRS to review internal complaints would hinder anything, since the group only examines whether an investigation was timely, thorough, and objective.

Lewis also said the actual process of internal review would not change, and said allowing the PCRS to be part of it would be “benign,” since the group doesn’t have the power to do anything more than what it currently does.

“It’s still confidential,” he said. “I think it helps inform the subcommittee as to items. I thought that this would be one of the easier things to do, all the processes in place. I thought this one would be an easy one because all the processes are in place. I’d like to push this one quite frankly.”

At different times, Lewis and Fournier pushed back against Jennings’ statement in his memo that he was “looking into” various initiatives, calling that language vague.

“I’d like something more definitive,” Lewis said.

Prior to their discussion regarding Jennings’ comments, PCRS member Maria Testa continued a presentation she started in the August meeting, outlining the roles of review boards in other New England municipalities. She picked Providence, Rhode Island, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, as her two examples.

Both Providence and Cambridge, she said, have boards with more authority and staffing than Portland, and histories of reinventing themselves. She also said these groups have a history of bargaining with police unions, which Portland does not.

“No one does as little as we do,” said Testa, who started the meeting by discussing the first report from the PCRS from January 2003. She said the group is doing the same work now that it did then.

Testa also said the PCRS has “no institutional memory,” because board members change periodically and they have no staff to provide continuity.

“There is a lot of history repeating itself,” Testa said.