OIR Group report says Portland police have not learned from mistakes

By Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian, July 10, 2013

Portland police respond to the scene of a traffic stop which left Keaton Otis dead.

Portland police respond to the scene of a traffic stop which left Keaton Otis dead.

A new outside audit of six Portland police shootings and one death in custody highlights a series of problems that continue to plague officers’ use of deadly force and the bureau’s internal reviews.

READOIR Group Report 2 – Police Shootings and In Custody Deaths – July 2013 (PDF, 17MB)

In a report released today, the California-based OIR Group found in multiple cases:

  • Police used Taser stun guns inappropriately and ineffectively.
  • Officers violated policy when chasing armed suspects or reaching into and firing at moving vehicles.
  • Training division reviews failed to compare what police did to their training.
  • Reviews by commanders and detectives included inaccurate accounts of what occurred.
  • Investigators held witnesses to shootings for an unreasonable amount of time.
  • Officers failed to preserve crime scenes by moving evidence.
  • Investigators didn’t do adequate follow-up or interviews of witnesses.

The shootings and death in custody examined by the auditors happened from 2005 through 2010. Each of the shootings followed a police foot or car chase, or standoff with a suspect in a vehicle.

They involved Marcello Vaida in October 2005; Dennis Lamar Young in January 2006; Scott Suran in August 2006; David Hughes in November 2006; Osmar Lovaina-Bermudez in August 2009; and Keaton Otis in May 2010.

Auditors also looked at the March 2006 death of Timothy Grant, who struggled with police after they received reports he was screaming and running into traffic. He died at the scene after police punched and used a Taser as they tried to get him in handcuffs. His death was ruled an accident, resulting from a cocaine overdose.

The consultants zeroed in on Lt. Jeffrey Kaer‘s 2006 fatal shooting of Young, a suspicious man sitting in a car idling outside Kaer’s sister house. Mayor Tom Potter fired Kaer for inappropriate tactics leading up to the shooting. But an arbitrator ordered Kaer back to work with a 30-day unpaid suspension instead.

The report, done at the request of City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, concluded that the Police Bureau failed to learn from its mistakes in Young’s death.

“Unfortunately, the bureau did not use this (arbitration) decision as a learning opportunity and did not consider or change any practices as a result of the arbitration decision,” the consultants said. “This report notes a number of reforms that could have come out of an exacting review and urges the Bureau to consider them now.”

For example, police never adopted any written protocols to dissuade officers from responding to a call involving a family member. The bureau kept Kaer in his lieutenant’s role while he was being investigated, and he now serves as executive officer to the assistant chief of patrol operations.

The consultants also suggested that the bureau broaden its policy that prevents officers from shooting at moving vehicles to address an officer’s approach to a parked car that could take off.

The consultants recommended that the bureau work to dispel the often-repeated refrain from officers and command staff that the actions of the suspect “dictated” an officer’s use of force.

Kaer’s commander in writing and Kaer’s union representatives at arbitration argued that the actions of “a drug-addled criminal forced him to use deadly force.” The arbitrator embraced that, finding that Young “wrote the script that led to his demise.”

The auditors found the argument objectionable and urged the bureau to ensure that officers put themselves at a tactical advantage to handle suspects with the least amount of force.

“To place the onus of any outcome on the suspect provides an excuse for the outcome and does not sufficiently credit well-trained officers and their ability to bring suspects into custody intelligently and safely,” the report said.

In response to the audit, Police Chief Mike Reese wrote that officers have the goal to control tactical scenes “to the greatest extent possible.”

“However, it is the reality of many tactical situations that a subject can influence the course and outcome of the event,” he said.

Reese thanked the consultants and said he found their 31 recommendations helpful.

Among them:

That the bureau tighten its recently revised Taser policy even further; strengthen its restrictions on foot pursuits of armed suspects and require officers to notify dispatch of their location; develop a safer method to extract an uncooperative suspect from a car; and encourage sergeants to be supervisors and not get involved in tactical situations.

Members of OIR Group will present their report to Portland’s City Council next Wednesday, July 17, at 2 p.m. in council chambers in City Hall.

Making Cop Discipline Stick

By Denis C. Theriault, Portland Mercury, July 10, 2013

Chief Mike Reese

Chief Mike Reese

The cops always find the sunny spot in an impossibly dark picture.

For the second time in two years, an outside auditor probing some of Portland’s most notorious police shootings has unearthed gaping holes in how cops are trained to avoid using deadly force and then, crucially, how their missteps are investigated and punished. Worse, it found some flaws linger despite (sadly) repeated opportunities for the Portland Police Bureau to learn from those mistakes.

Investigations take too long. It’s not clear when armed suspects can be chased—raising the odds of deadly force being used. The bureau still isn’t clear when cops can stand in front of moving cars—raising the odds of deadly force. And there’s still no policy explicitly telling officers they can be fired just for severely mucking up one critical incident.

But here’s how the bureau responded: with a smile.

“We remain committed to being transparent,” Chief Mike Reese wrote in an appendix to the findings in this year’s report, released Wednesday, July 10, by the city auditor’s office and County of Los Angeles Office of Independent Review (OIR). “We agree with OIR that there always will be room for enhancements or improvements.”

And now you see—even though the bureau has demonstrably improved the way it investigates itself in recent years—why there might still be a problem. Because what Reese casts as mere “enhancements” are anything but. Especially for a police bureau working with the feds after it was found to be using excessive force against people with mental illness.

The report examined one in-custody death (Tim Grant, 2006) and six shootings (Marcello Vaida, 2005; Dennis Young, 2006; Scott Suran, 2006; David Hughes, 2006; Osmar Lovaina-Bermudez, 2009; and Keaton Otis, 2010). It found disturbing problems that could have been immediately addressed after each incident, but never were.

The report noted a series of shootings, including Vaida’s and Otis’ and Grant’s, where cops used Tasers inappropriately and didn’t even understand the basic mechanics of how the devices work. It urged the bureau to further strengthen its Taser policy, recently revised at the behest of the feds, limiting how long cops can Taser someone and when.

Most of the recommendations come from the Young shooting. Young was shot after he tried to pull Lieutenant Jeffrey Kaer into the stolen car he was driving, following a series of tactical errors by Kaer that put the cop in harm’s way and let the confrontation escalate. Kaer was fired for failing his training. But an arbitrator reduced that to a one-month suspension because bureau policies didn’t allow training lapses−or someone’s death−as a factor. They still don’t.

And the bureau has only just begun formally studying why it loses in arbitration cases.

Meanwhile, fired cops like Ron Frashour, who shot Aaron Campbell in 2010, still get their jobs back in arbitration even when training reviews say they shouldn’t.

“It’s important the bureau has standardized policies, whether it’s on Tasers or foot pursuits,” says Constantin Severe, the city’s Independent Police Review director. “And they need to train on them and hold their officers responsible. That’s where we get into trouble.”