Accountability Story: The biggest impact report in my career

To start, you should know that this 2003 report was not an audit. This was not a safe place to send auditors, so we hired consultants. If you think that is crass, ask yourself why you’ve never conducted an audit of officer-involved shootings.

You should also know that my office contained the Independent Police Review division (IPR) that takes complaints against the police and ensures that the investigations were thorough and fair. We applied other strategies like mediation, performance standards, and policy reviews, but Portland City Council also wanted us to deal with officer-involved shootings. Council wanted us to hold public forums after each shooting, but I argued that these activities required a huge outlay of resources, did not produce constructive solutions, and were far outside our usual types of complaints, which were issues like officer rudeness. Richard Rosenthal, the director of IPR, suggested we hire some national experts to conduct a review and council adopted our alternative.

To my knowledge, no other city had voluntarily undertaken this kind of review and then reported the results to the public. Some cities have been forced to undergo these reviews by the US Department of Justice, and some cities have had a review but kept the results confidential. City attorneys argue against public disclosure because it could compromise their efforts to represent their government’s employees and result in more tort claim costs. Unfortunately, this runs counter to the fundamental principle of accountability to the public, as well as the fact that transparency seems to be the best prod for problem-solving.

The risks are high in other ways. On a political level, biggest threat to the relationship between a police department and its community is police shootings. The use of deadly force against community members can increase feelings of fear rather than safety. Add the fact that, across the nation, members of minority communities are more likely to be victims of police shootings, and the issue regularly threatens to detonate.

On a personal level, there is no other action of government that is more heart-wrenching to those involved. Family members, surviving victims, and involved officers all have their worlds turned inside out. Public and private discourse is filled with many free-ranging “what-ifs” and hindsight perspectives—the “couldas, wouldas, and the shouldas.” The stories of the victims whose lives were cut short are often pure tragedy, and shootings have often forced officers to leave policing because of the emotional damage.

The typical work of auditors is about risks and rewards, though. We mine an agency’s operations for those gold nuggets of improvements and savings. Sometimes we find ways to stretch the public’s money, sometimes we find a well-run organization; both good news for the public. We try to measure our efforts in financial savings, but how much would you risk to save a life or two each year?

We prepared a request for proposal and assembled a selection committee including police representatives and community members and conducted a national search. We contracted with the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC), a nonprofit that assists in the oversight of police agencies. They had done similar kinds of work for Detroit, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and other communities. We asked them not to identify individual officers, and to recommend general improvements that could be made to policy, training, and investigative quality. Council directed us to review only cases that were no longer subject to litigation and, as a result, nearly all the thirty-four cases occurred prior to the current chief’s years with the Portland Police Bureau.

Our contract with PARC required several extra steps in their normal review process. We asked them to provide the police bureau an end-of-fieldwork briefing; to discuss a confidential draft of the report with the chief, commanders, and investigators; and to attach a response from the bureau to their report. Auditors routinely perform these steps but the idea was foreign to PARC, and a little daunting, I think.

They conducted their work and when we heard that they had reached their preliminary conclusions, we set up a meeting to brief the chief and his commanders. This meeting ended very quietly, because of the gravity of the topic and findings. One great benefit that arises from these briefings is the time it allows managers to question and discuss the issues among themselves to validate the findings and begin thinking about solutions. As a result, when we facilitated the meetings to discuss the report, the managers and detectives were focused on how to implement the recommendations.

In the 220 pages of the PARC report was a narrative that described weaknesses in how the police bureau investigated, reviewed, and managed risk in deadly force situations. PARC emphasized many important areas to achieve their goal—to always protect the safety of officers as well as the public. While there will be occasions when deadly force is necessary, these occurrences can be reduced by managing the risks that officers face. They saw no indications of gratuitous use of firearms or other weapons, or of racial or ethnic bias in the incidents they reviewed.

PARC consultants had never encountered the elements of a finding, which we coached them on because we insisted on well-documented criteria. Their report was an excellent example of all the necessary pieces, including an objective tone. Many of the eighty-nine recommendations address “cause” elements that are familiar to us all: inadequate communications, non-adherence to sound training and policies, weak coaching and supervision, unclear duties, and insufficient learning from incidents. One commander said to them, “There is no administrative review in this organization. People are afraid to ask hard questions. People are afraid to hurt feelings.” The causes are mundane, but the context is highly charged.

The chief’s response letter addressed each of the eighty-nine recommendations, agreeing with and committing to implement over 90% of them. I made a commitment to the chief, as I do with every manager who agrees to improvement, that we would emphasize the bureau’s strategies for change and positive responses to the recommendations, rather than the findings of the report. My press release simply stated that the Portland Police Bureau recognized the areas needing improvement and had committed to making the changes. In its presentation of the report, PARC consultants also recognized good work done by the bureau and urged council and the public to apply the lessons of the report to the future, rather than placing blame for the past. The chief sat at the table with the consultants and again made those commitments to City Council.

Not surprisingly, the report was front page news for two days running. The Oregonian newspaper editorial said, “The report is a devastating critique of Portland police, and there’s no way to soften the blow. The public can forgive mistakes, but it’s hard to forgive a police agency that fails to learn from them.”

The eighty-nine PARC recommendations call for a change in the culture of the organization, nonetheless I was shocked a few days later when the mayor requested the resignation of the chief. I don’t know how much other factors influenced her decision, but I found him to be open, cooperative, and civil in all our interactions.

I know the results of this review put a strain on all the working relationships within the police bureau, in city hall, and in the community. Significant problems and profound changes will do that. This report will never let Portland return to its past practices, which is progress. We printed an extra five hundred copies to distribute to all the precincts so every officer had an opportunity to read the entire report. In addition, we hired consultants again the next year for another review, hoping that regular monitoring will encourage further improvements.

The consultants delivered nearly everything we asked for, except comparative statistics on police shootings. It is a sad commentary that they could not obtain consistent, reliable counts of officer-involved shootings from other cities.

Two other notes. A police sergeant told me several years later that the report generated difficult conversations but he felt the police bureau was better for it. Also, the PARC consultants found the experience of discussing the draft report with police managers to be extremely valuable and were considering making it a regular part of their other reviews.

Verified by MonsterInsights