For more than a year, or 411 days to be exact, Portland police have investigated but not explained how derogatory slides made it into an officer training on crowd control.
For eight months, the city has remained in negotiations with the Portland police union on a future policy on body-worn cameras for officers with no agreement reached.
A federal judge on Wednesday said he was concerned by the lack of progress on both major issues and urged the U.S. Department of Justice and city of Portland to select an independent monitor by next summer to oversee police reforms.
The timing would coincide with the anticipated resignation next June of the city-hired compliance officer who, along with Justice Department lawyers, has provided oversight until now.
“This might be an appropriate point to transition … to a court-appointed monitor,” U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon said at a status hearing in Portland.
Anil Karia, attorney for the Portland Police Association, said having a monitor would amount to a “sizable change” to settlement drafted in 2012 and approved two years later to address federal findings that police used excessive force against people with mental illness.
The judge immediately responded that he agreed, but that a significant change appears to be warranted.
When he approved the settlement in 2014, the city was expected to institute the required reforms within five years, he noted.
The settlement called for widespread changes to police use-of-force and Taser policies, training, supervision and oversight, a restructuring of police crisis intervention services and quicker investigations into alleged police misconduct.
Eight years later, “we have not yet even achieved substantial compliance, let alone for a full year,” Simon said.
“Maybe it’s time for a substantial change,” he added.
The judge said he has no power to order an independent monitor yet nudged the city and Justice Department to either forge an agreement to bring in a monitor or suggested the Justice Department return to court and present him with a motion to consider an appointment.
Simon also said he was disappointed by the city’s and Police Bureau’s lack of transparency regarding the objectionable crowd control training presentation.
He also wondered aloud if “intentional foot-dragging” by city officials and the police union is delaying an agreement on a body camera policy.
The controversial police PowerPoint surfaced last fall in a pending civil lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Don’t Shoot Portland against the city over allegations that officers used excessive force responding to protests in 2020.
The last slide in the training given to the Police Bureau’s Rapid Response Team showed a “Prayer of the Alt Knight” — a meme that uses biblical terms to urge the beating and pepper-spraying of demonstrators derided as “dirty” hippies.
The meme advocated leaving protesters “cuffed and stuffed” and “stitched and bandaged” to teach them a lesson. It came at the end of a training presentation that contained other inappropriate slides.
The slides also provided inaccurate depictions of the difference between what police should consider protesters’ passive and active resistance to police orders and cited outdated case law governing when police can use pepper spray.
City Attorney Robert Taylor said during the hearing that the bureau’s internal investigation into the final training slide has focused on one officer and was presented Oct. 12 to the bureau’s Police Review Board to determine if any violations occurred, and if so, what discipline to recommend.
Representatives of Justice Department and the city’s compliance officer attended the review board’s meeting.
The matter is now before Police Chief Chuck Lovell to accept the review board’s findings or come up with his own. If the chief proposes discipline, an officer has the right to challenge it before the chief and the mayor, who serves as the police commissioner, make a final decision.
As of Wednesday, the chief and mayor have not taken any action, city attorneys told the court.
Simon said he and the public should have learned by now “‘how did those offensive slides get in there, and what’s being done to remedy that problem?”
Taylor said the training division captain sent a memo to remind officers they must get approval from the division and the Justice Department before presenting training.
When the judge pressed city attorneys for some idea on when to expect completion of the investigation into the slides, Deputy City Attorney Heidi Brown said most likely in mid-January.
Taylor told the judge he shares Simon’s frustration, but that the city must respect the process. Upon completion, it will become public, he said.
Only at the Justice Department’s request, the city started a broader investigation about four months ago into why the presentation contained outdated case law. That inquiry also continues, Taylor said.
Simon said he would invite federal lawyers to file a motion to ask for an evidentiary hearing to get answers “if we don’t get some public transparency on where some of those slide issues have come from or what’s being done.”
“There comes a time where too much delay is counterproductive,” he said.
The city and Portland Police Association have had 13 mediation sessions to draft a body camera policy and have agreed on many principles except for one or two points, city and union attorneys reported.
If an impasse remains, a state arbitrator could hear the matter, they said.
“I get that this is complicated, but I’m also a little disappointed in the lack of progress in reaching a resolution,” Simon said. “I’m a little concerned there may be foot dragging – and maybe even intentionally – by the city and Portland Police Association.”
City and union lawyers denied that, saying they’re working in good faith to reach an agreement.
“The city and the union are not colluding to drag feet,” Karia responded.
Among the critical issues remaining are whether officers will be able to view camera footage before writing a report or being interviewed after a police shooting.
The Justice Department has called for a camera policy that would exclude such viewing before an officer gives a statement or writes a report but would allow officers to supplement their reports or statements after viewing the footage.
The police union has opposed that.
Simon has said in the past he believes he has authority to overrule a collective bargaining agreement if it breaches the settlement requirements.
STILL OUT OF COMPLIANCE
The city is still out of compliance with the settlement requirements and hasn’t adopted some of the steps it agreed to take to return to compliance. Those include equipping officers with body cameras, hiring a civilian dean of training and completing an outside assessment of its crowd control training.
The city had hired a civilian training dean earlier this year but the police bureau abruptly withdrew the offer before he began amid public criticism of his choice and apparent controversy over comments made on one of his podcasts.
New applications were accepted through Oct. 31.
Dennis Rosenbaum, the city’s settlement compliance officer, and his associate Tom Christoff also blasted the Police Bureau’s “wholesale failure” to respond to their recommendation that its use-of-force inspector identify officers who have used more force than others. Instead, the inspector has sent spreadsheets of officer use of force to police unit supervisors to address.
The inspector should review the information and identify potential problems, they said.
Attorney Kristen Chambers, representing the Albina Ministerial Alliance’s Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, said the group, a party to the settlement, believes a court monitor is “absolutely necessary at this time” to address ongoing problems involving the city and Police Bureau that involve “delay, secrecy and exclusion of the community.”
Members of the Mental Health Alliance advocacy group urged that any court monitor report directly to the judge, not the city, and be properly funded.
Hager said the Justice Department is seeking the city’s agreement for a court monitor, but if not, may move for one independently. Its experience in other cities, such as Baltimore, is that it takes about four months to have one in place, after a conceptual agreement is reached, Hager said.
The parties to the settlement are due back in court Feb. 28.
— Maxine Bernstein
Email email@example.com; 503-221-8212
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