By Aaron Varhola and Alejandro Queral of Portland, Oregon. Aaron is on the board of directors, and Alejandro is the executive director, of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center.
Last week marked the fifth anniversary of the now infamous attacks by the Portland Police on peaceful Americans exercising their right to free speech while protesting George W. Bush's appearance at a Gordon Smith campaign fund-raiser in downtown Portland.
In what came to be know as A22, Portland police, many clad in black riot gear, clubbed, pepper-sprayed and shot rubber bullets at nonviolent citizens exercising their Constitutional rights to free speech, much like Southern police officers used fire hoses, tear gas, and police dogs on peaceful marchers during the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s.
Among those caught in the police-induced melee included a TV camerawoman, a family of five who were attempting to leave the protest, as well as dozens of other peaceful protesters, many of whom didn't know what was happening until they were doused with pepper spray. Three members of the Independent Police Review Division observing the police tactics also experienced the burn-in-the-eyes and confusion after they too were soaked with chemicals. The police's 'push and spray' tactics were apparently intended to move the protestors away from the target of their protest.
The lawsuit that ensued took over two years to settle and more than $800,000 of taxpayer money. Eventually, the city implicitly recognized police officers had made mistakes which resulted in serious violations of Americans' Constitutional and civil rights. Yet, none of the officers who committed the worst abuses on that day were ever disciplined. In fact, some officers were promoted, despite the serious allegations that their actions violated the Constitutional rights of members of our community. This lack of accountability has left many in the community feeling like the only possible recourse to redress their constitutional rights is through the courts. But what happens if you cannot afford a lawyer, or if the attorney you're trying to retain on a contingency basis (i.e. she only gets paid if you win) determines your case is not worth the risk and turns your case down? The answer lies in a civilian-based oversight system that is independent of the police.
In 2001, Portland created the so-called 'Independent' Police Review division in order to 'help improve police accountability, promote higher standards of police services, and increase public confidence.' But as long as IPR continues to have all complaints of police misconduct investigated by the Police Bureau's own Internal Affairs Division, and as long as IPR lacks the power to compel testimony from witnesses, including officers, public confidence in the process will not materialize. Fortunately, City Council has recently hired an independent contractor to evaluate IPR's performance. The NW Center hopes to see a series of recommendations based on the following principles.
First, the oversight body must be independent and free from conflict of interest, particularly when conducting investigations. It must also have the power to conduct hearings, subpoena witnesses and report findings and recommendations to the public, and must have complete access to police witnesses and documents.
Second, the police oversight body must have access to information from the city and the police bureau which will aid it in addressing policy considerations as efficiently and quickly as possible.
Third, the oversight system must conduct open hearings, which are essential for enhancing public confidence in the process, and should address problems with current policies through hearings and other fora for developing policy reforms.
Fourth, the police oversight system must have a staff and members of the citizen committee that are broadly representative of the community it serves. The oversight body must also have adequate levels of funding and should not be a lower budget priority than police internal affairs systems.
Finally, the oversight board must have the power to recommend disciplinary measures for officers that engage in unlawful conduct or violate internal bureau policy.
The recent firing of Lt. Jeffrey Kaer by Mayor Potter and the suspension of Officer Hythum Ismail also illustrates the need for a consistent police review system with teeth. Only through the establishment of a truly independent and impartial police oversight body will the public's confidence in the process be restored. This is the first step toward rebuilding the community's trust in the police, and the only way by which we will prevent another A22.