April 06, 2020
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Here’s what Portland’s police watchdog group actually does

Jake Bleiberg | BDN
Jake Bleiberg | BDN
A sign in front of the Portland Police Department can be seen on Friday in Portland.

UPDATE 8/24: The city tonight will hold a public meeting to answer questions about the Police Citizens Review Subcommittee. The meeting will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. in Room 209 of City Hall. It comes after 18 people reportedly tried to attend a recent meeting at police headquarters, only to find it had been canceled without an announcement posted online.

The activist group that led last Friday’s disruptive Black Lives Matter demonstration is arguing that the citizens’ committee charged with keeping an eye on Portland’s police is weak — and the lawyer who heads the watchdog group agrees.

“We do not have a lot of power as a subcommittee,” said Portland lawyer Kelly McDonald, who chairs the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee and has served on it for seven years.

The group is charged with ensuring that the Police Department’s internal affairs unit investigates complaints brought against the department in a “thorough, objective, fair and timely” manner, according to McDonald. And if the committee finds an investigation to not fit these criteria, it can report it to the city manager, who may take further action.

“And that,” McDonald said with a chuckle, “is our power.”

The subcommittee does not have the power to overturn or alter the outcomes of internal affairs investigations.

The subcommittee became a topic of debate after local Black Lives Matter activists last week called on Police Chief Michael Sauschuck to allow “community members to take part in law enforcement oversight committees.”

But this week the group rearticulated its stance, saying that the problem is that the police oversight group, which has been in place since 2001, lacks real teeth.

“The issue with the oversight committee is that it doesn’t actually have much power,” said organizer Samaa Abdurraqib of the Portland Racial Justice Congress. “They’re kind of there in name only.”

That’s not the case everywhere, according to a 2001 U.S. Department of Justice report that lays out the four typical models for citizen police oversight used around the country.

Although there are many subtle variations, the report states, most oversight bodies follow one of these four structures:

— “Citizens investigate allegations of police misconduct and recommend findings to the chief or sheriff.”

— “Police officers investigate allegations and develop findings; citizens review and recommend that the chief or sheriff approve or reject the findings.”

— “Complainants may appeal findings established by the police or sheriff’s department to citizens, who review them and then recommend their own findings to the chief or sheriff.”

— “An [independent, professional] auditor investigates the process by which the police or sheriff’s department accepts and investigates complaints and reports on the thoroughness and fairness of the process to the department and the public.”

Of these, Portland’s approach most closely resembles the second model, which is used in cities including Rochester, New York, and Saint Paul, Minnesota, according to the Department of Justice.

But what sets Portland’s subcommittee apart is that it only reviews the internal affairs investigation process, not its conclusions, McDonald said.

For example, the citizen oversight board would not have the power to judge that the internal affairs unit was too lenient on an officer found to have exerted unjustified force, so long as the department’s investigation was conducted properly.

McDonald said that the relative weakness of Portland’s citizen oversight hasn’t been a problem because in his seven years on the subcommittee, “internal affairs has done a hell of job.”

The group has eight members, who are appointed by the City Council, and meets at police headquarters once a month, according to its website.

McDonald credited Sauschuck with creating a culture where officers know that complaints will be taken seriously, and he said that the subcommittee has not voiced concern to the city manager during his tenure.

But he also said that “people come and people go,” and that it’s important to have robust checks on the power of legal violence granted to law enforcement.

“You can’t be lax about this. You can’t just sit back on your heels and say everything’s fine right now, we don’t need to worry,” said McDonald.

 


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