A citizens group that reviews some complaints against Portland police officers is recommending that the city expand the types of cases the group can evaluate and allow citizens to participate when the department reviews an officer’s use of force.

Those were two of five recommendations contained in a memo from the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee to City Manager Jon Jennings that was approved last week. The memo also contains suggestions for how the city can improve the police internal affairs process and the broader relationship between residents and police.

“The Police Department has an internal use-of-force committee, which is a proactive and commendable approach to reviewing use-of-force incidents,” the subcommittee wrote to Jennings.

“However, use-of-force incidents are currently reviewed without any citizen input, and without using a ‘reasonable citizen’ standard as a measurement of the appropriateness of the use of force. While law enforcement and legal expertise is certainly important in reviewing use-of-force incidents, every use of force has the potential to impact community trust in the department, and the citizen perspective should be taken into account.”

The city’s use-of-force evaluation process requires that any use of force more severe than simple handcuffing be reported in writing. Each report is then passed up the department’s chain of command until it reaches a committee that reviews the reports to look for patterns or problems that could be solved with more training or changes in policy.

The subcommittee recommended that two citizens be added to the use-of-force evaluation process – one from its own ranks and one from the city’s employment committee.

The citizen review subcommittee was created in 2001 and comprises seven residents appointed by the City Council. The committee has a narrow purview and is tasked with determining whether the internal affairs process conducted by police in response to a complaint against an officer is “thorough, objective, fair and timely.”

It only gets involved in police complaints after the matter is fully adjudicated through the internal affairs office. Subcommittee members do not have a say over whether an officer is punished for any alleged transgressions, and only has the power to examine the process.

The subcommittee performs its evaluation of the internal affairs complaints in private during executive sessions because the personnel records are confidential by statute, but they vote on each case in public. There is no information about the internal affairs case provided to the public other than a docket number.

Following the tense week of demonstrations in Portland after the death of George Floyd, some members of the subcommittee said that its power must be expanded if it is to provide effective oversight of the police. Members also have discussed that few people in the city are apparently aware of the committee’s existence and its role in the police oversight process.

The subcommittee also wrote that its purview should be expanded to include all complaints against police. Currently, the citizen review subcommittee only evaluates complaints levied by people outside the department. There is no third-party review of complaints that officers make against each other. Internal complaints can come from commanders, supervisors or other officers, and make up a substantial percentage of complaints. In 2018, for instance, 14 complaints were external and six were internal. In 2017, eight complaints were external and 13 were internal, according to annual reports about the internal affairs cases generated by police.

“Allowing the PCRS to also review internal complaints, using the same standard by which it reviews external complaints, will give the process added credibility and will allow the PCRS a fuller picture of the steps that the Police Department is already taking to ensure appropriate behavior by its members,” the group wrote in the memo.

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