There has never been a better time in America to be a criminal.
Police officers are under a magnifying glass. Everything they do is dissected and second-guessed.
In Portland, Ore., cops on patrol now have backseat drivers – and they aren’t even in the car. They’re members of the various citizen watchdog groups, a couple of them sanctioned by the city.
One group, the Citizen Review Committee, met recently to consider an appeal filed by a man who didn’t like the outcome of an earlier complaint he filed against two Portland police officers. The committee ended up delving into the issue of profanity by cops and the routine practice of officers running license plates. Could it be, the committee wondered, that license plates are being profiled?
This would be amusing if it didn’t have dangerous implications.
Like its name suggests, the Citizen Review Committee provides citizen oversight of the police. Who is this generic “citizen” that the committee represents? There are more than 630,300 citizens in Portland. It’s doubtful these committee members speak for the majority of Portland citizens.
In the recent case before the committee, the complainant – a black man – alleged that “Officer A” and “Officer B” used inappropriate control techniques when they handcuffed him and that Officer B used profanity. (Names are not revealed in the materials given to the public.)
A brief summary of the incident: In the hours after midnight, June 6, 2015, the officers were on routine patrol in North Portland when one of them spotted a vehicle that looked familiar. He ran the license plate, and it came back as a vehicle that had been operated by someone who had been arrested for drunken driving and had a suspended driver’s license. When the officers saw the vehicle make a right turn without stopping, they had reason to make a stop.
The passenger in the vehicle walked away, while the officers asked the driver if he was Mario. He said his name was Warren. When the cops asked for identification, he said he didn’t have to show it and denied making an improper turn.
The man became agitated and refused to cooperate. Officers told him if he wouldn’t provide identification, they would have to arrest him. The man later told city officials investigating his complaint that he argued with the officers and decided to make a scene by getting loud and waking the neighborhood.
The officers used a standard handcuffing technique employed on uncooperative subjects: One officer took the man’s right arm, and the other took his left arm, brought them behind his back and cuffed him. He said he told the officers that he previously had surgery on his left arm and that it hurt.
“I don’t give a fuck about your arm,” he said Officer B replied.
Told he was going to jail because he wouldn’t show his ID, the man refused to get into the patrol car. By this time a crowd had gathered and was yelling at the police. Three more officers arrived as backup. Then the man’s father showed up, calmed his son down and identified him for police. The father explained that his son had prior contact with the FBI on a TriMet bus and did not like police.
The officers uncuffed the man and let him go. He followed up by filing a complaint with the city’s Independent Police Review (whose executive director and assistant executive director are both black).
IPR investigated and exonerated the officers on the question of inappropriate control techniques. On the issue of whether Officer B used profanity, IPR determined it was “not sustained,” meaning there was insufficient evidence.
The man wasn’t happy with the Independent Police Review’s findings, so he appealed to the Citizen Review Committee.
Yet when the case came before the committee this month, the man did not appear. He sent an e-mail (which was not made public, although committee members talked about it at length) saying he didn’t want to participate.
The committee, which is supposed to serve as an unbiased body, instead took up his cause themselves – and interjected the accusation of racial profiling, although the man had not alleged that himself.
“Why did you run the license plate?” committee member Michael Luna asked two police supervisors.
Lt. Charles Fender and Cmdr. George Burke of the North Precinct explained that typically if officers are going to stop a motorist, they run the plate.
Luna wanted to know if the license check occurred before or after the officer saw the driver make an illegal turn.
Committee member Roberto Rivera joined in. He understood that the officer recognized the car from a prior incident. But was the car registered to the man filing the appeal or to the DUI driver? It felt a little bit like racial profiling to Rivera.
Lt. Fender said when police run a license plate, the information that comes back includes all the names associated with that vehicle. If a driver associated with the car was arrested for DUI or a suspended license, that information shows up.
Committee member Kiosha Ford said it appeared the officers ran the plates to “look for an issue” to pull over the driver.
The police supervisors pointed out that one of the biggest ways they recover stolen vehicles is running license plates. Officers are encouraged to do so.
Committee member Rivera didn’t seem interested in recovering stolen vehicles.
“Would data show you are doing that only in certain neighborhoods or all neighborhoods?” he asked.
“How many plates did you run around this time in the neighborhood?” asked Ford. “How many random stops did you do?”
It wasn’t a random stop, Lt. Fender said. One of the officers recognized the car as being involved in prior criminal activity.
It went on like that, in a circular fashion. Then the committee turned to profanity.
Committee member Julie Falk referred to a police directive regarding courtesy and profanity. Is every occurrence of profanity documented, she asked.
“In the privacy of a vehicle, a lot of things are said,” Lt. Fender replied.
“I bring it up because I would imagine that is something that could slip,” Falk said.
Committee members wanted to know how many times profanity was documented.
An officer can write thousands of reports a year, but each one that mentions a profanity isn’t singled out and labeled “profanity report,” Lt. Fender said. There is no way to count them up.
“How much profanity is used?” asked Ford. What instances has this officer used profanity in the past? Is there a reason why it wasn’t documented?
If there’s no system to audit profanity, added committee member Julie Ramos (who is black), that means it can’t be proven,
Lt. Fender noted there were multiple witnesses who shot video of the encounter between Officer B and the man accusing him of using profanity. Police never heard back from any of those witnesses.
Committee member Rivera wanted to know how officers are trained regarding profanity. Are they encouraged to use it or discouraged?
I’m not a mind reader, but at this point it looked to me like Lt. Fender and Commander Burke exchanged glances that said, “Can you believe this shit?”
They explained to the committee that police work involves dramatic and hostile situations. The use of profanity might allow an officer to tell a subject in a very direct, aggressive way to stop what he is doing.
Then came a chance for the public to weigh in. Citizen Review Committee meetings are poorly attended and often attract the same dozen or so spectators. Among the individual self-declared copwatchers are David Kif Davis, Laura Vanderlyn, Charles Johnson, sex offender Robert West, a guy who calls himself “Blue Lightning” and Michael Meo. West, Davis and Vanderlyn often train their cameras on cops.
None of them attended this Citizen Review Committee. Meo has been keeping a low profile since his wife took out a restraining order on him. The others may have worn themselves out earlier in the day during protests against the City Council, which was considering a new police contract.
Two representatives from Portland CopWatch (a long-time, police oversight organization) doubted that Officer A recognized the car. To them, this was a case of driving while black.
Dr. Rochelle Silver, who is a member of the Community Oversight Advisory Board (another city-sanctioned police watchdog group) and a former member of the CRC, said she was “concerned about the way in which the allegation about profanity was written. … Did the officer use that word, or did he not use that word? For me it is more important in what he said in the totality.”
To her, the officer was telling the man, “I don’t care about you.”
Portland resident Herschel Soles questioned Officer B’s statement that he couldn’t remember if he used profanity.
“For him not to recall, he must do it a lot,” Soles decided.
Sitting next to him was Celeste Soles, and she added that she didn’t respect people who use profanity.
Committee member Ford kept returning to the man’s e-mail about why he didn’t want to participate. She paraphrased snippets of it (“Some of the words aren’t that nice,” she said). The man believed that if he had been a white female, the police would have treated him differently.
Yes, they probably would have, because they would not have suspected her to be a guy named Mario. The man’s treatment had nothing to do with his skin color and everything to do with his failure to show his identification to police. (The man’s father explained to police Internal Affairs investigators that his son had a friend named Mario who borrowed his car and “must have done something in the car” because it was towed by police.)
All of this was lost on committee members who pressed on, trying to build a case against the cops.
The e-mail was a powerful statement about racial profiling, said committee member Mae Wilson Pfeil.
“Do you feel this is a racial profiling case?” asked Rivera.
Wilson Pfeil asked if they could make an allegation.
“I was pulled over myself,” said Ford.
“I don’t think racial profiling happens all the time … In this particular case I don’t know,” said committee member Ramos. “I’ve gone on a lot of ride-alongs where officers run plates (on whites and blacks).”
Luna said more data would be helpful. He lives in Northwest Portland and added, “I doubt if police are running my plate. … I’m white as new-driven snow.” (First, he’s not literally white. I’m light beige, and he’s slightly darker. Second, the car was pulled over at night. Could the officers even see the color of the driver’s skin?)
Committee Chair Kristin Malone tried unsuccessfully to get them back on track.
“We are getting a little muddled,” she said.
“Police need to stop using profanity at any level,” said Rivera. “It should be embedded within the culture to stop the use of any (profanity).”
“The e-mail from the appellant should be shared with the officers. … He seemed pretty traumatized with this,” said Luna.
Wilson Pfeil suggested Portland CopWatch disseminate the e-mail.
Rivera brought the committee’s nitpicking to a new level, instructing police that they should specifically ask drivers for a “a driver’s license” and not “identification” as if somehow the latter might be demeaning.
“When you stop someone walking, then you can ask for ID,” he said. He suggested the committee assign a work group to look into the running of license plates and establish a database to see who is being stopped and in what neighborhoods are police running plates.
After an hour of this, the Citizen Review Committee ended up agreeing that the officers used lawful procedures in handcuffing the man. It waffled on the use of profanity. The man hadn’t proven his case, but the committee recommended that the officer undergo a debriefing.
No wonder the city wants to change the Citizen Review Committee. When I first started attending these meetings, they reminded me of small-town city councils where everybody knows everybody, and the proceedings are casual. At every meeting of the CRC I’ve attended, the audience has to remind committee members to speak into their microphones. The conversation often meanders, punctuated by silence, as if committee members can’t decide what to do next.
It wasn’t until several months ago – when Charles Johnson, one of the disgruntled copwatchers, threw water into the face of committee member Jim Young – that city officials seemed to take notice of the committee.
Copwatchers have complained that the committee is a rubber stamp for police. It’s understandable they think that way. But the reason the committee often agrees with findings of the Independent Police Review is because most of the time, the police are doing their job. Many of their “customers” are difficult people who don’t like police. These folks don’t cooperate, and they know they have options. It’s easy to file a police complaint in Portland. (Google it.)
City officials have proposed merging the Citizen Review Committee with the Police Review Board. The board, which is where complaints first go, is comprised of a community member, the executive director of the Independent Police Review, a supervisor of the cop under review, a peer of the officer and an assistant chief.
Because of the proposed merger, the CRC is desperately trying to be relevant. That might explain committee members grilling police about profanity and license plates. Accused of being rubber-stamps for the police, are they now going to become rubber-stamps for the anti-cop activists?
The alternative weekly Portland Mercury, which is often the only media in attendance at CRC meetings, says “the public” has panned the proposed merger. If attendance by the public is any indication, most Portlanders don’t care. They probably worry more about their cars getting stolen, their homes broken into and their kids using drugs.
What is especially misguided by those opposed to the change is an obsession with “transparency” – the notion that every police critic with a gripe, an opinion, a raised fist, a bullhorn needs to be heard.
Earlier this year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University analyzed the leading causes of death in America. Police killings weren’t one of them. However, medical errors ranked among the top – more than 250,000 Americans die each year from medical errors.. How many physician/nurse/pharmacist oversight groups do we have?
The Citizen Review Committee can still have merit. Anyone applying for a police officer job in Portland, Ore., should be required to attend one of its meetings.
Let them see what they’re in for.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons