Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Oversight

Happened again, another Portland Police shooting. Day before yesterday, some mentally unstable homeless guy started threatening patrons at the Hoyt Arboretum, up by the Zoo. He wasn't actually violent, just noisy, so the police told the caller to call back if he got feisty.

Can't bust every homeless guy who yells at somebody "Gimme a dollar!"

Meanwhile, Officer Jason Walters decided to go check it out. Thirteen years on the job, a routine roll. He got there, found out the guy was in the outdoor toilet, so he herded the tourists out of the way and went to go have a word. Door pops open, and the guy, bloody and waving a "razor" knife, charges out. ( I haven't heard exactly what kind of knife it was yet, but that's not important. People hijacked planes using boxcutters, a sharp is a sharp, the little ones kill you as dead as the big ones.)

The officer drew his gun and backpedaled. A slew of witnesses heard him yelling, "Put the knife down! Put it down!" over and over. The guy kept coming, the officer was, according to witnesses, in full retreat.

The knifer didn't stop.

The officer shot him four times. Guy fell over, the officer called immediately for medical aid, and the guy was dead by the time the ambulance got there.

Now if ever there was a righteous shooting, this is one. Charging loon with a knife, it's self-defense. Open and shut, anybody can see that.

But -- and you knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you? -- given the assorted goings-on in Portland wherein guys have died from injuries during an arrest, a preteen girl got shot with a beanbag, and a despondent unarmed man was killed, the public's confidence in the police has been shaken.

The common thread was that those three didn't do what they were told to do right now!

Here a cautionary tale: If the po-lice in Portland tell you to jump, you jump and ask how high on the way up, else you might get kilt.

Now it might be that each of these was justified. I have discussed them, and in my mind, one of them was excessive, one was completely unnecessary. The third was just an out-and-out tragedy. Same officer was involved in both of the first two, by the by. And in the case of the homeless man who died from injuries sustained during his arrest for peeing in public, it took three years for the Chief to get around to finishing the investigation -- and allowing as how it was sad but nobody's fault.

That's not swift justice in anybody's book.

The local activists and city government are agitating and dickering for a citizens review board with teeth, and I'm guessing, despite the union's all-out effort to stop it, it's gonna happen. People want the ability to know what is going on, and they don't feel as if they have that.

The Portland Police have nobody to blame but themselves if it happens. If you want to show folks you have nothing to hide, you open the curtains and invite them to have a look. You don't fill the moat with monsters and raise the drawbridge and hope they'll get bored and go away.

The thin blue line becomes a thick blue wall when outsiders want to have a peek. On the one hand, I don't blame them; on the other hand, that trust that the police will police themselves has been rattled.

If there had been some kind of transparency so that the public got the information up front and fast, I don't think we'd be looking at things this way. And it might hamstring the police to have some do-gooder civilian board looking over their shoulders, but it's their own fault. You can't just shrug it off with, Well, shit happens, it's a tough job.

Yeah, it is, but civilians don't understand, and it is part of your job to make them understand, or you are apt to be seeking work elsewhere.

Spider Man said it: With great power comes great responsibility. Explaining why you did what you did goes with the badge and gun. If you don't volunteer it, somebody is going to demand it, and it's getting to that stage in Portland.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

In my opinion:

If we, as civilians, want accountability from our law enforcement officers, then we have to make the 'review' of the incident just that, a REVIEW. It should not be any sort of blanket 'blame game' mentality.

One other thing:

Why not train review board civilians on what a shooting is like (in a controlled situation like a police academy)?

An informed opinion is usually a much more valued one.

jks9199 said...

First -- a cop's job is to make someone do (or cease doing) something. Most of us follow a simple pattern: ask once, tell once, then make 'em comply. If circumstances warrant -- you skip the either or both of the first two steps.

That said... Lots of agencies make mistakes in handling the public reaction to use of force. Most people have no understanding of violence; they think the movies are real. So the public often wonders why the cop didn't shoot the knife out the bad guys hand (clipping the blade only, leaving the bad guy with nothing worse than a sore hand...)

Agencies shouldn't be afraid to say what the officer did -- and why. And then be prepared to show the press and interested public what happened.

But I'm not a fan of civilian review boards.. too many are too oriented on frying cops rather than finding truth.

Steve Perry said...

Civilian review may not be the best answer, but it is a legitimate response to the question. If you don't want somebody looking over your shoulder ready to pounce if your foot is two inches left of where it should be, how best to avoid that?

If what comes out is, "Well, you couldn't begin to understand, so I can't be bothered to try and tell you."

Wrong message.

Like I said, if civilians are clueless about how things really work on the streets, then it is the job of the guys who do know to educate them. When the shields go up and everybody hunkers down behind them, it only re├źnforces what civilians are apt to believe -- they aren't going to tell us what is really going on and we need to know, especially when citizens die during the process.

Hey, that guy got stomped and he died!

And three years later: Yeah, well, shit happens.

Wrong message.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but no knowledge leads to speculation, and if nobody counters that, you can't blame folks for going down that road.

Got a better solution? Post it.

Anonymous said...

A better solution...Hmm...

A couple of years back, a foreign national travelling up here in Vancouver Canada acted out, threw stuff, yelled, etc. When the police showed up, he ended up dead. After a long inquiry nothing was solved to anyone's satisfaction...

No help there.

Recently, a local police force did two things to improve public relations.
1. They took three of their most vocal critics and put them through a three day training course. It was an abbreviated course designed to teach these people what being a policeman was all about.

They also filmed it and showed some of that film on the news.

2. The same police force also took several members of a civilian review board and put them through a half day course on arresting someone armed with a knife. It was the usual thing starting with the gun in the holster versus the (rubber) knife armed suspect starting across the gym.

They also filmed that and showed some of it on the news too.

Another solution...Maybe...

Rory said...

Two things.
It's my impression that activists tend to be unhappy with trained civilian review boards because once they are trained on force law and decision making, especially if they get some consims, they tend to approve of the officer's decisions.

I have put reporters through this, buy the way.

The second issue, on transparency, is not going to happen. Not because of some bullshit 'code of silence' or even 'cops take care of their own'. It's a by product of our system. Officers under investigation are also employees and it is state labor regulations, not a conspiracy, that makes it impossible for IA reviews to be open to the public. They have the same protections as disciplinary processes in any other workplace, and those protections are pretty extreme in Oregon.

Dan Gambiera said...

Roaches fear the light. Anyone who is so allergic to transparency and outside oversight has something to hide. That includes guys wearing blue polyester.

The cops always whine "But doctors and lawyers are investigated by other doctors and lawyers."

Yeah, they are. But those records are out there in public. And that is only one level of oversight. There are plenty of others. The police - any police in any jurisdiction so far without exception - want to be judged only by their own and only in secret.

Dan Gambiera said...

And Rory, I've seen those "civilian academies", even reviewed a couple of their curricula in an AoJ seminar many years back.

They were nothing but "thin blue line" bullshit. All the training was designed pretty ham-handedly to show that no mere civilian could ever understand the pain and agony a cop goes through and that the officer "on the ground" must never, EVER be second-guessed. A lot of it involves taking someone with no experience or training, dumping him in a simulated situation where he's disoriented and has no frame of reference. When he inevitably fucks up they end it and debrief him. That's not training or education. It's pure theatrical manipulative gamesmanship designed to make the mark sympathize with the con-man.

Rory said...

Dan-
Loaded, emotional words. Roaches, light, bullshit, etc. First, as to MDs and lawyers internal disciplinary matters being public record where? How do you access them? How does that account for doctors suspected of homicide (not negligence, but active homicide) continue practicing?

Second, the ham-handed theatrics-- what can I say? I don't know of anyone, anywhere who just throws civilians into scenarios. Our reporters got a full use of force class and a familiarization with all the weapons they had access to, and though I can't claim to know every incident I have never even heard of a civilian review board member getting less than that.

That said, even with a full academy, your first real use of force, even if it went well can feel like a bumbling, terrifying pile of mistakes. Most people have never felt adrenaline at that level and, of course, only think they can relate.

It's obvious this issue hits some buttons with you. I'm not sure where you're located, but I'd be happy, if you have an hour or so to kill, to put you through a Use of Force class, exactly the way it is taught to a rookie officer. I've done it for authors groups before and have all the material, so it's no imposition.

Rory

James said...

Hi Dan,
Scenario training is tricky. We try to get it right and make things winnable, but it's not easy. One problem is that it's impossible to simulate actual street conditions exactly in the training environment. No matter how realistic the scenario, there's always a little voice in the back of your head saying "these guys aren't really gonna hurt me".

For example, I was making a domestic violence arrest in the middle of a small neighborhood riot. While I was trying to secure a handcuffing armlock, a half a brick came out of the crowd and pegged me in the side of the head. I saw stars but didn't let go of the bad guy. I kneehocked him and fell on top of him, cushioning my knee with his available kidney area (strictly speaking, not fair, but hey, I wouldn't have been there if he hadn't been drunk and beating his wife). That's the kind of thing you just can't simulate. A truly hostile crowd of 40 people and the brick to the side of the head. The Chief would have frowned on us smacking a civilian.

Now the important question: Steve - where to I get one of those sweet donut holders for my duty belt? If there's a corresponding coffee cup holder in basketweave, I am IN, baby!

Steve Perry said...

Uh huh. What cop ever kept a donut long enough to need a carrier ... ?

James said...

You wound me.

Accurately, I might add.