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A few words from the Editor September 2003

Incompetence or willful disregard for their mission to protect and serve? For anyone pouring over the 222-page report by the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center, that question has to come to mind. The center examined 32 officer-involved shootings and two in-death custody cases that took place between Jan. 1, 1997 and June 30, 2000. What they found only reinforces what police accountability advocates and a wide array of community leaders have been saying all along — this bureau is in the grips of a leadership crisis and community members are paying for it with their lives.

What is particularly troubling about many of the issues for which the bureau is taken to task is that they involve core functions for the police — basic investigation techniques that detectives either didn’t understand as essential to any credible investigation or thought was unnecessary because it involved one of their own. It would be naive to not think that in some cases, these failures were linked to intentional acts to close ranks around an officer under scrutiny for her or his use of deadly force.

Among those lapses were failure to preserve crime scenes. As noted in the Oregonian, in one case detectives allowed an officers wife to accompany him as he performed a “walk-through” of the scene. In another case the detectives failed to note spent shell casing, live ammunition and bullet holes until six days after the officer-involved shooting.

Bureau detectives also seem to have problems with forensics as well. The center found detectives routinely failed to collect primer gunshot residue — including in cases not involving officer-related shootings — or check bullet trajectories. The evidence gained from such techniques can be vital, as in a case where two Portland police officers shot and killed a man they claimed had fired at them. The gun yielded no fingerprints. There were no witnesses. The presence of primer residue on the deceased’s hand would have corroborated the officers’ story.
Perhaps most troubling is the practice of giving officers days to “decompress” before submitting to an interview and then allowing an untaped “pre-interview” to take place before the officer goes on the record. Under the best case scenario, these untaped “chats” were intended to help the officer collect her or his thoughts. Yet anyone involved in investigations knows that such methods more often than not taint the witnesses testimony — even in the case of professional witnesses like police officers. In the worst case, these pre-interviews were opportunities to “get the story straight.” While Portlanders should believe in the honesty of most Portland police officers, recent cover-ups by the police tells us we cannot assume some officers will not lie to get out from under a mistake.

In some ways more disturbing than the lapses in the investigation of officer-related shootings is the absence of leadership by those in the chain of command in quelling a Wild West attitude found in some officers that not only place citizens at risk but fellow officers as well. Take for example the Feb. 2000 police chase where officers fired 12 shots into an SUV whose driver the officers claimed fired a shot at a nightclub before the officers gave chase. The 12 rounds were fired without the officers knowing whether passengers were inside the SUV. The narcotics raid in which Officer Colleen Waibel died started with a forced entry into a house containing an armed felon who had been involved in a standoff with the police before. The officers claim they checked the law enforcement database before authorizing the entry but did not find the suspect’s record.

The other findings of the report are far too numerous to list here, but there are few surpises on the list.

What does come as a surprise are some of the things missing from the report. Even though the report acknowledges that African American and Latino suspects are twice as likely to be shot as members of the general population, the center found no basis for racial or ethnic bias playing a role.

The center also offered up 89 recommendations to address the problems they uncovered. Although some of their recommendations have been raised in the past in various forums and deserve prompt action, others actually would be a step backwards. For example, Copwatch and other police watchdog groups have long pushed for the use of de-escalation tactics before relying on force. The most logical way to achieve this would be to make every officer complete Crisis Intervention Team training. The center only recommended better deployment of the existing Crisis Intervention Team members rather than a more drastic overhaul of tactics.

As Rev. Roy Tate noted in a conversaton I had with him as we went to press, the report really is nothing new. What the center has done is charge the city $60,000 for what a growing number of Portlanders already understand — we have a growing crisis in the police bureau and there is neither the political will or courage on the council to tackle it. Mayor Katz, fearful of more community pressure, is attempting to ram through some of the center’s recommendations as quickly as possible. Chief Kroeker has already said he would embrace those changes. But as with past reviews, investigations, reports and so forth, most Portlanders realize that six months or a year from now, the police will do something that leaves a citizen (most likely a citizen of color) dead or injured as a result.

We are way past the point where we can wait for our city commissioners to find enough spine to force the mayor to take real action. Even as a lame duck Vera seems capable of reducing the boys to nothing more than occasional grumbling.
It is also too late to expect Chief Kroeker to do the right thing. He had his opportunity when he first came on board. Afterall, a competent chief would have reviewed the agency placed under his charge and fixed what wasn’t working.
This issue will only be resolved by the community. And now, more than ever, the community seems ready to take it on. The Albina Ministerial Alliance will be offering their report on the Kendra James tragedy on Sept. 6. But they intend to do more than just rebut the police version of that case. They hope to see a new movement arise that will not stop until justice has been done. I encourage everyone to join them on Sept 6.

—Dave Mazza



The Portland Alliance 2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
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Last Updated: October 5, 2003