Tensions rose between Portland city officials and Justice Department attorneys during a public meeting Tuesday night, uncovering a rift between the two agencies that could bring the city back to federal court earlier than expected.
Justice Department attorneys tasked with overseeing the Portland Police Bureau’s 2014 settlement agreement on the use of force and overseeing officials said the city had failed to explain how to deal with future protests and investigations into violence.
“We asked for a recovery plan and the city did not agree to provide one,” US assistant attorney Jared Hager said at a meeting of the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing Tuesday evening. “If we do not receive a plan and the non-compliance persists, all we can do is issue a notice under the enforcement provisions of the settlement agreement and try to obtain a plan of action that we believe is sufficient in that way.”
Portland police officers on bicycles at a white supremacist rally in Portland, Oregon, Saturday, August 17, 2019. The rally organized by the Proud Boys, labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, drew militiamen, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis as well carried the potential for violence.
Bradley W. Parks / OPB
Hager said it would be unfortunate to have to go this route.
When the DOJ issues a formal notice of non-compliance, it sends a letter to the Portland district attorney and police chief starting a 30-day clock for the city’s response. If the federal government’s concerns are not addressed, this would lead to a face-to-face meeting and then to mediation. Only when these efforts are unsuccessful will the matter be brought before the federal judge, who oversees the agreement.
It would be the first time the DOJ felt the need for a formal notice of non-compliance in the nearly seven years that the agreement was in place.
The settlement agreement came into effect after a federal investigation found officials in Portland used excessive force against people with mental health problems. The Justice Department released an update in February that identified errors in a number of sections that included the use of force, training and the accountability of officers.
The use of force and a lack of accountability can be traced back to the more than 6,000 documented cases of police using force against demonstrators in 2020. According to the PPB policy, an use of force report must be completed before an officer’s shift ends and the officer’s manager must review it for policy compliance within 72 hours.
According to the February report, this did not happen.
“Some regulators have validated the use of violence with little or no critical assessment – even uses of violence that were recorded on video and reported in the news media or that were later subjected to complaints,” the Justice Department report said. “The validation of individual violence with little or no discussion about the appropriateness of the violence used or about attempts to de-escalate is in contrast to the political requirements of PPB for violence investigations and the express organizational goals of PPB.”
On day 68 of the protests against systemic racism and police violence, protesters gathered outside the Portland Police Association.
Jonathan Levinson / Jonathan Levinson
The city claims it was overwhelmed by protests last summer. Federal prosecutors disagreed, saying that PPB’s inability to follow their own guidelines exposed a systemic failure within the office. While the city made steady strides toward mutually agreed goals prior to last summer, the summer’s events revealed gaping gaps in an accountability system that was previously believed to be a match for snuff.
“They say the demonstrations overwhelmed the system,” Hager told OPB after the meeting. “But it was the PPB’s use of force, not the demonstrations, that showed that the city’s armed forces’ reporting / verification systems and accountability systems were inadequate.”
According to action reports of protests last summer, which were scrutinized by OPB show officers, they sometimes reported dozens of incidents of violence during protests, but offered very few details.
In a post-incident report on July 1, the events related to nearly 120 violence are described as follows: “Members assigned to the (Portland Police Rapid Response Team) used 40mm ammunition, hand thrown (tear gas) , hand thrown (rubber ball distraction device), squeeze I hit baton, pepper spray and other forms of physical violence against those who engage in criminal activities in the protest. “
Even in cases where the subject was arrested or whose name was known, the report states for each incident that no subject statement was made “based on the circumstances of the incident.”
“Due to the tactical dynamics of these significant events, I am unable to perform the normal interrogation of the members involved in the field,” one sergeant wrote in a July 29 report.
Justice Department attorneys said this type of corner cutting poses a massive issue to the bureau’s accountability system that they must address in order to comply with the settlement agreement. An effective system is not effective if it only works under routine conditions, they said.
On Tuesday evening, during a tense exchange, Mary Claire Buckley, a civilian overseeing the Portland Police Bureau’s Inspectorate General, reluctantly when Hager and his colleague, U.S. Assistant Attorney Jonas Geissler, said it was a key requirement in the settlement agreement, and that the city must take action if it is unable to deal with the violence it has chosen.
“Jared, I don’t know what you are talking about because any allegations of excessive use of force that have come to our attention have been referred to either IPR or IA and are currently under administrative investigation,” Buckley retorted. “There is no claim that we are not administratively investigating any allegation of excessive use of force.”
But the DOJ said it was the long tail of original sin – the failure to write detailed reports and conduct reviews within 72 hours – that the city needed to remedy.
“The problem with the failure of the front-end violence investigation system is that you’re starving the back-end accountability system of the data required to understand whether the violence was constitutional or not,” Geissler told Buckley and the police committee.
Buckley reminded committee members that while protests last summer had 6,000 acts of violence, that did not mean they were unconstitutional. The argument sparked a tough reprimand from Hager.
“The idea that all of the 6,000+ acts of violence were constitutional is incredible,” he said. “Even if 99% were good, how can the city dig up the 1% and hold officials accountable at this late stage? And 99% is a far too generous assumption if the force trapped on video is any indication. “
The new police inspectorate, which was passed by voters in Portland in November, is threatening this conflict. The board, which proponents claim has broad autonomy in investigating wrongdoing, discipline, and firefighting, is set to replace the current system called the Independent Police Review, a battered organization in public opinion that critics claim little Has power to hold officials accountable.
But it’s a complex transition that the city has no plan for yet.
“I don’t think they know what they’re going to do about moving from IPR to the new oversight body or what they’re going to do to manage the violence in the next crowd control situation where the police might be the object Demonstration, ”said Hager. “To think that this is unprecedented and will never happen again, especially when it comes to the police’s decision to use force against demonstrations, I think is folly.”
If the city drafts a transition plan, it must be approved by the DOJ under a settlement agreement that is more likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.