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CRC members resign, blast police review system

The Independent Police Review (IPR) received a well-deserved public rebuke August 19 when five out of nine members of its volunteer panel, the Citizen Review Committee (CRC), resigned en masse at a CRC meeting, protesting the unethical behavior of IPR Director Richard Rosenthal and City Auditor Gary Blackmer, the system’s initiator. CRC Chair Hector Lopez, Vice Chair Denise Stone, and members TJ Browning, Douglas Montgomery and Mia Butzbaugh cited several reasons for ending their participation in a process they described as a sham.

Victims of police misconduct file complaints with the IPR, which either dismisses the cases, or gives them to the Portland Police Bureau’s Internal Affairs Division for investigation. The primary role of the CRC entails reviewing complaints that have been appealed to the Committee by citizens dissatisfied with Bureau findings. But, as Chair Lopez pointed out, “the IPR has distanced itself from providing staff support to the CRC, determining that certain activities of CRC cannot be supported by IPR staff.”

Douglas Montgomery backed up Lopez’s comments. “The Director has made a mockery of the system for dealing with citizen complaints about the police. He reads the statute as limiting reviews. He cuts citizen complaints off if a gnat’s eyelash of an error is discovered anywhere. When the CRC decided to reverse itself when an incorrect decision was made, he challenged their autonomy and declared them wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.”

The error referenced by Montgomery pertains to the Committee’s initial vote to dismiss — at the urging of Rosenthal — the Jose Mejia Poot case that accused officers of beating Poot while arresting him for a 20-cent bus fare deficit just days before other officers fatally shot him. Months later, at the request of representatives of the Latino community, the CRC decided to review the case despite vehement opposition from Rosenthal and Auditor Blackmer.

Lopez pointed out the consequences of such a decision. “CRC does not have access to Internal Affairs records to assist in appeals that do not have the blessing of IPR and the City Auditor.”
Rosenthal and Blackmer claimed that the Poot case became closed to the Committee because members waited too long to change their minds about hearing the case. That’s an interesting excuse considering that IAD often completes misconduct investigations well beyond its 10-week deadline in violation of police directives without facing any adverse consequences.

Resigning member Browning mentioned the impossibility of citizens trying to work in a staff-driven review system such as the IPR. Citizen review boards that have improved police policies have a structure in which trained volunteers select a director who hires staff personnel. In other words, the staff in such systems is accountable to the volunteers, whereas the Citizen Review Committee has to dance to the tune of Director Rosenthal, who stops the music if the CRC wants to do something contrary to his and Auditor Blackmer’s frequently unreasonable demands.

Browning also referred to the complaint system’s lack of impartiality, since the IPR has never chosen to perform an investigation despite its ability to do so. Browning condemned Rosenthal’s constant praise of IPR’s partnership with the police by stating, “Citizens don’t trust the police to investigate themselves but they are expected to trust a citizen review system that is a partner with the police? A true independent citizen review board would need to be impartial to both sides of the process, citizen and police.”

CRC members have frequently noted the IPR’s blatant slant towards the police, which is common in audit style review systems such as the IPR has allowed itself to become. Staff in these systems tend to appease the police because without independent investigation, including the power to compel officer testimony, they must rely on bureau cooperation in order to access police files. Such a partnership results in the IPR focusing on the perspective of the police, leaving the public’s view out in the cold.

Rosenthal and Blackmer started turning their backs to the CRC quite a while ago, when Committee members became more knowledgeable about the IPR ordinance and no longer listened to misleading advice provided by the two officials. Over a year ago, for example, Rosenthal convinced the CRC to recommend that an excessive use of force case be categorized as a service complaint despite the fact that complaints alleging serious violations of police directives could not be given such a classification. When the CRC subsequently discovered the error, Rosenthal closed the case. Gradually, the Committee began trying to reverse such errors, including their reconsideration of the Mejia Poot appeal, much to the disgust of Blackmer and Rosenthal.

Resigning member Butzbaugh spoke to this type of unethical IPR behavior. “There is a lot to say about the flaws of the current system, but one that has been eye-opening to me is its utter vulnerability to manipulation by the IPR. During my orientation by the IPR, I was told that the CRC is a tool for the IPR to wield behind closed doors. Rather, it’s a devotion to the worst kind of deal-making, and such deal-making has not and will not result in the improved police practices that Portland’s citizenry deserves.”

Prior to the mass resignation, the CRC discussed a situation that typified the members’ struggle with the IPR. An appeals hearing had been scheduled for that night, but the appellant withdrew his appeal at the last minute. Members Browning and Butzbaugh believed that the inclusion of new information in the IPR summary report for the case - personal facts about the appellant irrelevant to the nature of his complaint — may have pushed him into the withdrawal. Director Rosenthal made the decision to include the information with CRC member Bob Ueland’s support even though Butzbaugh — who opposed its inclusion — was also assigned to review the case. Many members voiced concern over the appellant’s stated fear of retaliation by the police if he went forward with his complaint.

Such concern for the citizens using the process has been the hallmark of the five members’ involvement in the oversight system — a concern rarely displayed by the Auditor and Rosenthal. Denise Stone pinned down the problem of the officials’ attitude while explaining her resignation as CRC Vice Chair. “There appears to be no will to implement a user-friendly version of the complaint handling process.” Stone emphasized that the IPR ordinance “is facilitated by the IPR to shut out the very people it was designed to serve and to silence the voices the City claims it is committed to hearing.”

Blackmer and Rosenthal believe that public reviews of misconduct cases have less importance than the examination of police policy. Both seem to forget that without a transparent, impartial oversight system, many victims of police misconduct will not file complaints. Incomplete feedback on officer behavior leaves out many issues pertaining to certain police policies and results in many acts of misconduct being unaddressed.

In March 2002, three months after the IPR officially went into operation, Blackmer laid the foundation for disrespectful treatment of the CRC when he refused to allow the members to assist the expert he hired to review closed deadly force cases investigated by the police. When the Citizens requested a supportive role in this review before Council last year, Blackmer told City Commissioners he didn’t want them included because he didn’t want to be held responsible for “what this group might do.”

Auditor Blackmer’s concern over CRC members’ behavior seems ridiculous given his and Rosenthal’s apparent attempt a few months ago to hide the fact that the Bureau “lost” a large amount of data from its deadly force case files.

Montgomery explained the officials’ “Watergate” actions during his resignation. “The Auditor’s tight-fisted control extends to his IPR Director, who leaked an internal confidential memorandum. When the memo was mailed [to CRC members], the Director exhibited volatile and erratic behavior bordering on a major cover-up and compounding his error of judgment. The Director personally phoned each CRC member, directed all not to read the material, made house calls late at night. He accused the CRC of leaking the materials to the press and called one CRC member a liar.”

New recruits will join the remaining members of CRC in October after they receive training primarily provided by the police bureau. The new members will most likely be chosen for their ability to go along with whatever Blackmer and Rosenthal want them to do.

Diane Lane is a writer, police accountability activist, and member of pdxCOPWATCH


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Last Updated: September 4, 2003