On Lewis & Clark panel, ex-PPA attorney Will Aitchison fumbles explanation of accountability cases

By Denis C. Theriault, Portland Mercury, Oct. 2, 2013

Then-PPA attorney Will Aitchison (L) in 2010.

Then-PPA attorney Will Aitchison (L) in 2010, with Fred Bryant (R), father of Keaton Otis.

Will Aitchison, the longtime (and now retired) attorney for the Portland Police Association (PPA), was known for many things over the decades he spent defending his client in contract talks, court fights, government hearings, and arbitration cases.

He’s sharp-tongued. He’s deft with explanations. He’s disarmingly charming. And he’s always—impeccably—prepared for battle. Lore has it he’s never lost an excessive-force case in all his years working for the PPA.

His last bravura performance—the arbitration hearing that overturned the firing of Ron Frashour, the cop who shot and killed Aaron Campbell nearly four years ago—showcased each of those strengths.

When PPA President Daryl Turner publicly lambasted the city for failing to immediately abide by that ruling, his comments drew heavily from Aitchison’s pointed cross-examination of a former PPA president, Lieutenant Robert King. Under questioning from Aitchison, King (allegedly tearfully) acknowledged having changed his mind about Frashour’s conduct over the course of assembling a document reviewing whether the cop had followed training. The city’s expensive private lawyers apparently hadn’t realized the PPA was aware of King’s evolving opinion.

So imagine my surprise last Friday, September 27, when I heard Aitchison, in public, actually admit to being less than prepared.

Aitchison had agreed to participate in a police accountability panel at Lewis & Clark, part of the ACLU of Oregon’s annual conference. He’d spent several minutes mounting a cheery and technical defense of the role the PPA plays in the police discipline process.

His acknowledgment came after watching the panelist who followed him—attorney Greg Kafoury, one of the brightest lights in the city’s police accountability firmament—rip through a list of his recent cases. The whole thing was a good bit of theater in a conversation that laid bare the fundamental contradictions in Portland’s accountability mechanisms.

“I did not come here thinking this would be a discussion of individual incidents,” Aitchison deadpanned before telling the crowd, later, that just once in his tenure—Frashour’s case—did an arbitrator ever weigh the fate of a cop actually fired for excessive force.

It didn’t help. Kafoury, with the requisite bombast of a trial lawyer used to arguing in front of juries, had already won over the crowd (which included, it should be noted, Mayor Charlie Hales‘ chief of staff, Gail Shibley).

Greg Kafoury and his son, Jason Kafoury, have spent years persuading juries to award their clients taxpayer dollars in police misconduct cases. He offered a familiar list of cops and victims. And a point. For all the money his clients make, actual discipline for those incidents is exceedingly rare.

Sergeant Kyle Nice, a cop in the beating of James Chasse Jr., was later reported by another cop for anger issues, but kept on the streets—only to wind up in a road-rage case. Officer Leo Besner, who racked up hundreds of thousands in brutality settlements and jury awards, including the death of Raymond Gwerder, won a promotion and high praise from Police Chief Mike Reese.

Kafoury’s pièce de résistance, however, was a never-before-seen clip of retired Chief Rosie Sizer giving a deposition in Nice’s road-rage case. Sizer recalled the PPA’s march on city hall, in defense of a cop who bean-bagged a 12-year-old girl. She also admitted that no cop in all the years she’d been at the bureau had ever been fired over the excessive use of force.

“They didn’t survive the labor process,” she said.

Kafoury mused about the message all of that might send to young cops. That they can’t be touched. That a jury’s rebuke won’t matter. Not when commanders don’t care. Not when a skilled PPA attorney, in those examples that do manage to rouse the brass, outworks the city.

“Litigation is not the answer,” Kafoury said.

So what is? How about a citizen panel—an independent group charged with considering misconduct cases and then meting out punishment. It’ll take an expensive campaign to revise the city’s charter. Kafoury says he’s willing to help lead the way.

“Call my office and leave your name,” he said, “and say you’re interested.”

It was all very dramatic. But also important.