Portland Police Citizen Review Subcommittee member the Rev. Kenneth Lewis of Green Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church said there should be a “reasonable citizen standard of review" for police use of force. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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Portland’s Police Citizen Review Subcommittee last week recommended adding a member of the public to the Police Department panel that reviews use-of-force incidents.

The subcommittee usually meets once a month to review complaints about the Police Department. The seven-member panel met for three hours June 24 to discuss finalizing an annual report, as well as ideas to be sent to City Manager Jon Jennings for the group’s role going forward.

The most substantive discussion, outside of ideas for policing changes, concerned the response of police and city councilors to the June 1 protest after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

It followed a City Council workshop with Police Department leadership about the June 1 protest where protesters and police clashed. Police arrested 23 people that night, used pepper spray on crowds, and recorded acts of burglary and vandalism throughout the Old Port. During that meeting, Police Chief Frank Clark said police were justified in their use of force and that clashes involved groups of protesters who surrounded police cars, threw rocks and bottles at officers, and attempted to disrupt police activity.

Despite this, some councilors, including Pious Ali and Kim Cook, have called for an independent investigation into the June 1 episode. Ali has said in the past he has heard from individuals who don’t feel comfortable talking to the police or city government, due to lack of trust.

However, other councilors were less enthusiastic about an independent investigation, mostly because Clark said the department had not received complaints from anyone.

But members of the citizen review subcommittee questioned the council’s response.

Member Maria Testa said she wasn’t swayed by the department’s defense, or by councilors who said an investigation isn’t needed if no complaints are received. She said members of the public most likely don’t know how to go through the complaint process, they don’t want to participate in it, or they don’t know about the citizen review subcommittee.

“We don’t get very many complaints at all,” Testa said. “That doesn’t really say anything. Because of the way our system is structured we might not get many complaints.”

Police Cmdr. James Sweatt, however, pushed back. He said complaints don’t always tell the full story. “Just because someone complains,” he said, “doesn’t mean an officer did anything wrong.”

Councilors had asked during their workshop if the subcommittee was involved in the police investigation into the June 1 protest. Clark said it was not, since it was solely an internal department investigation. 

The citizen review panel is a subcommittee of the Civil Service Commission and was established by the council in 2001. It is made up of seven city residents who are not employed by the city. 

Following a wide-ranging discussion, the members ultimately agreed to send a memo to Jennings with a handful of recommendations.

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

A second recommendation was for police to carry business cards with information on how to file a complaint or commendation, or for feedback in general.

The third was to improve the language offerings for citizens to file a complaint. “Making it available in multiple languages is not that hard,” member Kaylin Kerina said. “You need to meet people where they’re at.”

The fourth was to have a person not from within the Police Department sit on the department’s use-of-force panel. Subcommittee member the Rev. Kenneth Lewis – nodding toward Sweatt’s explanation that use of force occurs when a “reasonable officer in a situation” feels force is also reasonable or justified – said this would create a “reasonable citizen standard of review.”

Anne Torregrossa, associate corporation counsel for the city who was assisting the group, said this recommendation could come in two forms. The first would be to just recommend Jennings or Clark appoint a person, and would not require a change to the city’s ordinance. Or, she said, the group could ask to require someone not appointed by either of those two, such as representatives from the subcommittee or the Employment Subcommittee for sworn police and fire personnel. That, however, would require an ordinance change.

Lewis was initially opposed to asking for an ordinance change, saying he wanted to get some kind of citizen representative on the use-of-force committee as soon as possible. The subcommittee ultimately compromised, requesting an interim appointment by the city manager or police chief until the ordinance can be changed.

The panel also discussed the need for a liaison for their group to be part of the community. Members said other cities with similar committees – for example, Albany, New York; Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Kansas City, Missouri – have such liaisons, and that it could be beneficial in facilitating more public conversations.

The committee will meet next on July 8.