The Tail Wagging the Police Dog

The Portland, Ore., police officer applied for a job with the Oregon State Police in Salem. As usual, the prospective employer asked the applicant why he wanted to leave his current job.

The Portland officer told of how he had pulled over a speeding driver and ticketed him. The driver, who was black, warned the cop that he was going to file a complaint for racial profiling.

The driver followed through on his complaint. It was duly investigated and declared unfounded. Yet that unfounded complaint remained in the cop’s file. The officer decided he didn’t want to continue working for an agency that treated even unfounded citizen complaint as righteous, especially in a city where citizen complaints are practically encouraged.

The story of the black Portland police officer – yes, the cop was black – wanting to get out of Portland made the rounds of the state Capitol building in Salem a few months ago. The story was symbolic of what’s happening in Portland’s police department.

In Portland, there are at least five citizen watchdog groups or public bodies keeping an eye on cops. After a year of meetings of one quasi-governmental group – the Community Oversight Advisory Board, which is recommending police reforms in how law enforcement treats the mentally ill – it appears the inmates have taken over the asylum.

One inmate in particular.

David Kif Davis, 45, is a white man with a shaved head who says he’s homeless and suffers from PTSD. (He goes by his middle name, pronounced “Keef.”) Davis is never without his digital camera and has become a regular at any public meeting in the metro area involving the police.

A couple of months ago, Davis was part of a group that hijacked a Gresham City Council meeting. A Portland Tribune story detailed how “bubbling with anger over … Gresham’s recent move to fence off an area along the Springwater Trail,” this group demanded that their stories be heard.

Check out one of the Tribune’s photos of Davis pointing his video camera at Gresham resident Scott Moulton, who countered with his own story. Moulton told of the damage vagrant campers had done to Gresham Woods and how they had threatened his family. This is how Davis attempts to bully people who disagree with him.

What’s different between Gresham City Council and Portland’s Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB) is that in Gresham citizens stood up to Davis and his group.

In Portland, some members of the police oversight board sided with Davis and turned against Chairwoman Kathleen Saadat. She had called for a uniformed officer to escort Davis from a recent meeting after he refused to move to the area designated for public filming.

Davis stood where he wanted to, sat where he wanted to with his video camera.

“I am asking you to please move. … Put your camera away or move,” Saadat said more than once.

“I’m not going to do that. It’s a violation of my constitutional rights,” replied Davis.

“I agree with you Mr. Davis,” said COAB member Tom Steenson.

Steenson is a white attorney who specializes in suing the police. He was originally appointed as an alternate member, but there have been so many resignations he became a full-fledged member. He pushes for every possible increased restriction on what police can do on the job, which could lead to more lawsuits.

For example, he wanted to further limit when officers could use pepper spray and Tasers. If you make it harder for cops to use pepper spray and Tasers, don’t be surprised if more of them reach for their guns when they are threatened. Attorneys like Steenson are standing by.

Saadat is a 76-year-old black woman and a long-time Portland civil rights activist. She was tapped to take over the advisory board after former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz asked to step down after one meeting. He cited health reasons. I think after one meeting he quickly deduced where it was headed.

No former chief justice wants to kowtow to a bunch of gadflies like Davis or try to herd a 15-member board, many of whom represent a “protected class” or self-described tribe. (If you are a deaf pansexual or a transgendered person or a Latin-American lesbian, you have a spokesperson on the board, even if he/she many not represent your best interests.)

The irony is that Davis probably best represents the challenges of dealing with the mentally ill, and this board of experts can’t seem to handle him. They seem inclined to acquiesce to him.

In the past year that I have been attending COAB meetings, Saadat has repeatedly reminded Davis, and occasionally several others in his cohort, of the ground rules pertaining to public comment. There is a time limit, and those who speak on a particular item are expected to address that item. These are standard requirements at many city, county and state public hearings.

Davis speaks in a low, nasally monotone, ignores time limits and drones on about his constitutional rights, about his PTSD, about how many times he’s been denied medical care, about how “cocktail liberal” City Commissioner Amanda Fritz had him tossed from a City Council meeting, about his constitutional rights, about a handcuff injury he suffered when he was 19 in jail in California that flares up every time he gets arrested again, about his constitutional rights, about how many complaints he’s filed against police and intends to keep on filing. One officer in particular really bugs him.

“I refer to him as Officer Pig Claws,” Davis said at a February meeting.

“We try to keep a civil tone … and not assign to people negative characteristics,” Saadat reminded him.

“I’ve got First Amendment rights…,” Davis said. “I can call him Officer Pig Claws.”

Davis reminds me of some of the regulars I dealt with on the crisis line at Spokane Mental Health. His mind recycles the same thoughts. He doesn’t seek resolution. He keeps circling the drain hole.

That’s why it’s disturbing that some COAB members like Steenson and Myrlaviani Rivier embolden him. They are supposed to be offering recommendations to help police in their interactions with the mentally ill.

Is it any wonder that a Portland police officer would be looking for another job? Imagine David Kif Davis filing a complaint against him, having the complaint unfounded – yet it remains in the officer’s file.

For the year’s worth of COAB meetings I have attended, Saadat has been patient with Davis. Her comments to him are typically  “Time’s up, Mr. Davis. … Your time is running out. … Mr. Davis, you’re done having the floor. … Time’s up.”

While Davis has pushed the time limits, he has had freedom to move about the hearing room, standing where he wanted to and shooting what he wanted to with his video camera.

About two months ago, one board member – former state Sen. Avel Gordly, who is black – asked Davis how he was using all the video he was shooting.

He gave a vague answer but mentioned he had access to a copwatch website. (He also posts on an aptly named website called garbagebrain.com.)

Then a little more than a month ago, another police watchdog group – the Citizens Review Committee, which is part of City Hall’s Independent Police Review – had an incident in which one of Davis’ cohorts named Charles Johnson, threw a cup of water on a committee member who sided with a police officer.

That led to the city attorney’s office reviewing the law and determining that the Citizens Review Committee could enforce new security measures – including removing disruptive people. That same right applied to Saadat when she asked Davis to cooperate or leave.

This is police reform in Portland: Johnson, the guy who tossed the water at the other hearing, was at the COAB meeting to cheer on Davis as he squared off with Saadat.

While Saadat called a recess to wait for a uniformed officer to arrive, Davis mingled with the audience and dug into a plateful of Middle Eastern salad that was among the food selections provided at the meeting.

“I better eat this,” he said to no one in particular. “In jail it’s a baloney sandwich.”

Saadat, apparently seeking to reassure everyone that she, indeed, had the authority to remove Davis, found a copy of the city attorney’s ruling and leaned into her microphone and read the law. All around her were COAB and audience members milling about, chatting and laughing. No one seemed to be listening. It was a sad and disrespectful moment for a woman regarded as a lioness in Portland’s civil rights history.

Within hours of Davis’ removal, YouTube and other social media sites were vilifying Saadat. Roger David Hardesty (husband of NAACP President JoAnn Hardesty) criticized Saadat, saying her “failure, to act as a ‘liaison’ in favor of a warden’s role, is evidence enough that the City continues to lack respect for Constitutional protection . . . not only in policing, but in the sham accountability systems as well.”

The Community Oversight Advisory Board will have an accountability problem, but not because of Saadat.

In an interview with The Skanner newspaper after she was appointed chair of COAB, Saadat said the meetings would be an opportunity for Portland citizens and the police to work together and learn.

Unfortunately, most Portland residents are busy with work and family. They don’t have the time or inclination to go to meetings or read reports. The majority of Portlanders also have few interactions with the police.

At many COAB meetings, Dan Handelman of Portland CopWatch is the only public speaker who appears to have studied the issue under discussion. He has long been a critic of the cops.

Police are often justifiably accused of having an us vs. them mentality. But there is an us vs. them mentality as well on the Community Oversight Advisory Board. Too often, members immediately side with anyone who is anti-cop, even if it is someone like David Kif Davis.

That won’t work if this board wants its recommendations taken seriously. After Davis was ejected, the board recommended the City Council immediately remove the 48-Hour Rule from the police union’s contract.

The rule allows a cop to wait 48 hours before being questioned by internal affairs after he has been involved in on-the-job deadly force. Police unions support the rule. Probably no work place in America is as rife with office politics as a police department. (Remember, even unfounded complaints don’t go away.)

Still, the 48-Hour Rule needs to go. It looks suspicious and is bad PR for police.

It will also be bad PR for the Community Oversight Advisory Board if it comes to represent the whims of guys like Davis who – not surprisingly – also opposes the 48-Hour Rule.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

Related:

A Gang of Police Reformers

Cop Shop Under Siege

Blue Hours and Alien Boys


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