Field Notes

Auditor: Considering police reform should not be on the back burner

When the City Council meets Wednesday, one issue that will not be on the agenda is reform of the police bureau.

That’s been put on the back burner.

And Lavonne Griffin-Valade, the city’s auditor does not think that’s such a good idea.

Her office has spent months developing new rules for the bureau in response to the settlement agreement the city and police bureau negotiated with the United States Department of Justice.

Griffin-Valade wrote that it is “clear to us that Council is not prepared as a body to enact these important code changes at this time.

“As a result, I have suspended our efforts until the city is otherwise inclined or compelled to fully implement the DOJ agreement.”

Last year, the DOJ determined that the Portland police used excessive force against people with mental illness on a regular basis. In an effort to avoid trial and having conditions imposed, the city reached a settlement with the Justice Department, agreeing to changes in training, oversight and policies.

“I am concerned by Council’s apparent lack of understanding of the gravity and urgency of moving forward with DOJ’s required changes,” Griffin-Valade wrote to them.

“The City of Portland has entered into a binding commitment to carry out these mandates, and in our view, what occurred at Council essentially broke faith with the Department of Justice and breached the public’s trust that police accountability in Portland is taken seriously by City leaders.”

At last week’s council meeting, Portland Police Chief Michael Reese and union leaders expressed opposition to proposals from the auditor that would strengthen civilian oversight of the bureau.

They thought the proposals were a bad idea and couldn’t understand why they would be needed.

“The bureau is not aware of any problems with the current system,” the chief said. "The current system is working very well.”

After the hearing, Mayor Charlie Hales announced the reforms would not be considered again until December.

Griffin-Valade’s disbelief leaps off the page.

“We were troubled by the Police Bureau’s suggestion that the accountability system is working just fine the way it is,” she wrote. “I would venture to say that DOJ is not convinced of that and neither are we.”

She cites two recent examples involving high-level officials at the bureau to back up her claim.

The first involved two investigations of Mike Kuykendall.

A friend of the chief, Kuykendall served as the bureau’s director of services (where he supervised internal affairs) before resigning after he referred to a police captain as a Nazi in one of a series of emails to a female lieutenant.

According to Griffin-Valade, the officer selected for the first investigation “was nearing retirement and lacked any familiarity with the current oversight system” and his probe “was by all measures wholly inadequate.”

Her office complained. A second probe was undertaken that “revealed potential serious misconduct.”

The second incident involved Assistant Chief Eric Hendricks, who took over for Kuykendall (and, thus, also had authority over internal affairs).

Griffin-Valade writes that Hendricks “inappropriately intervened to prevent a complaint from going forward” to internal affairs for investigation.

The auditor wrote the chief on the issue.

“Chief Reese did formally respond in a subsequent memorandum, saying there was no attempt to circumvent the investigation, but given the available evidence, we do not believe that to be the case.”

So, what Griffin-Valade is saying is that the chief was less than forthright.

“Both cases are emblematic of why a higher level of scrutiny and due diligence should be applied,” she writes.

There’s no question that in recent years the police bureau has made tremendous strides in how they operate – particularly in regard to interactions with the mentally ill.

A couple of months ago, I wrote of one officer talking a man out of jumping on to the highway. The man was grateful that the officer had come along when he did.

At the same time, there is clearly a long way still to go.

Referring to a graphic the council was shown last week, Griffin-Valade said it was used to show “why the oversight system struggles” to finish investigations in a timely fashion.

She writes: “We view that as excuse-making and a lack of seriousness with regard to Bureau accountability. It is long past time for that to stop and not simply because the US Department of Justice tells us we must.”