01 Dec

Police problems need to be fixed before they reach the grand jury

Watching the eruptions across the country over the last week, from Ferguson to the Morrison Bridge brought a key insight to mind. Was it the Godfather himself, Vito Corleonw, who asked,

“Why do you come to me after the wine is spilled?”

Because there is no good way for the criminal justice process to handle a shooting by police.

At least, Portland has never found one.

Portland has never had the kind of flaming explosion that swept Ferguson this week, after a Missouri grand jury followed the hand signals of the local district attorney and declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson. But Portland has repeatedly gone through similar processes, when shootings by police officers were ceremoniously referred to grand juries and, after solemn exhortations to let the system work, ended without indictments or public satisfaction.

Legally, these were not necessarily the wrong outcomes. Dubious, high-tension decisions by police officers are not the same as criminality, and juries are particularly unlikely to see them that way. As the Rodney King trial showed, a jury outcome can be as inflammatory as a grand jury outcome.

But that doesn’t mean the system works, here or there. There’s a reason the U.S. Justice Department is investigating the Ferguson Police Department, and a reason why it investigated – and is compelling some major changes – in the Portland Police Bureau.

In Ferguson, the police department was in a different universe from its community. An almost entirely white police force oversees a two-thirds black city, exacting an constant stream of fines and court fees needed to finance city government. It’s not clear exactly what happened with the killing of Michael Brown, but his body was left lying in the streets for hours, and the normal procedures following an officer-involved shooting – photographing the scene, preserving the evidence, taping an interview with the policeman – were blown off as though Brown had been given a parking ticket.

This fall, the city said it would change the fines and fees structure, and set up a community review board.

That was after the wine was spilled.

Portland’s situation is not quite the same. Its police force is more diverse, and police leadership has made efforts to connect with the community.

But there’s a reason the U.S. Department of Justice has gotten involved, and demands changes. Over the past few years, Portland has seen a series of fatal encounters with police – several leading to major liability payments by the city, none involving actions by the grand jury.

“Rarely in Portland have such decisions led to either discipline or other corrective action,” the County of Los Angeles’ Office of Independent Review concluded in a study of shootings released this week, reported by The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein. Notably, the police chief’s decision to fire an officer who shot and killed a suspect in a siege – and violated procedure – was overturned by a labor arbitrator, suggesting a lack of command authority for the bureau leadership, let alone Portland’s elected officials.

This sense was strengthened last week when three Portland police officers put up on their Facebook sites pictures of their badges with the statement, “I am Darren Wilson” – a position that might not exactly build community credibility for the next use of deadly force.

The action was, Chief Mike Reese said in what sounded like an understatement, “very inflammatory in nature.”

In August, federal district court in Portland accepted an agreement between the Justice Department and the Portland Police Bureau, with input from various community groups. According to the Department of Justice, “The agreement requires changes – many of which PPB has already begun to implement – in PPB’s policy, training, supervisory oversight, community-based mental health services, crisis intervention, employee information systems, officer accountability and community engagement and oversight.”

It’s a substantial assignment. Earlier this month, as part of the agreement, the City Council named former Oregon Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz and a team of criminal justice academics from Chicago to oversee its operation.

But starting there, at the training and policy and community connection level, is the only way to deal with this problem. As we’ve seen from Ferguson – and as Portland could have told Ferguson long ago – grand juries after a shooting are an impossible, hopeless way of dealing with police problems. It’s an unsatisfying way to decide what happened, a useless direction for creating officer accountability, and a path that leads nowhere for reconciling the police and the community.

The only way to address any of those issues is before the wine – and the blood – is spilled.

Note: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 11/30/14.

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