Portland police in T-shirts send tone-deaf message

Anna Griffin

Anna Griffin

Editorial Column by Anna Griffin from the Oregonian, November 24, 2009

A bit of friendly advice to the fine men and women of the Portland Police Bureau:

If you give a rat’s tail about how you’re perceived by the people you’re paid to protect – the people who also happen to pay your salaries — take off those T-shirts and go back to work. Because right now, you bear a startling resemblance to a bunch of out-of-touch thugs.

Some 650 people, Portland officers and their friends and families, rallied downtown Tuesday to protest recent command decisions. They carried signs and wore freshly printed blue T-shirts bearing the motto, “I Am Chris Humphreys.”

Humphreys is the 10-year veteran at the heart of two recent high-profile incidents of police force. Three years ago, he chased and then fell on James Chasse, the schizophrenic man kicked and Tasered by police after they spotted him urinating on a Pearl District sidewalk. Chasse died in police custody from blunt force trauma to the chest.

Earlier this month, Humphreys shot a 12-year-old girl in the thigh at close range with a non-lethal bean-bag shotgun. The girl had slapped another officer and resisted attempts to remove her from a MAX train.

Humphreys faces a two-week suspension in Chasse’s death and, last week, was placed on paid leave while internal affairs investigators look into the bean-bag shooting.

That prompted Tuesday’s rally. Union leaders, receiving advice these days from the same lobbying team behind Merritt Paulson’s clumsy effort to bring Major League Soccer to town, say they need more support from City Hall and the Police Bureau’s upper echelon.

“This is not about one officer,” union president Scott Westerman told the crowd. “This is not about one incident.”

Those T-shirts suggest otherwise.

The requisite caveat: Most of the city’s 922 officers work exceptionally hard under difficult, sometimes dangerous circumstances. They go out of their way to avoid violence.

The crowd Tuesday shouted, “Will you stand with us?” again and again. As a community, our answer should be a resounding, “Yes, yes, yes.” We will stand with the vast majority of you who do your jobs well – and well within the confines of both common sense and the law.

But will officers and their union stand for true accountability? Will they acknowledge that sometimes the best cops make poor choices and that bad cops – or good cops who cannot control their tempers – need to find new jobs? Will they recognize that they work for taxpayers – and Police Chief Rosie Sizer and City Commissioner Dan Saltzman – not the other way around?

Because at the moment, they seem to have forgotten.

There is an innate disconnection between the police and the people they protect, particularly in a city as liberal as this one.

Many Portland cops live outside city limits, preferring to escape far from urban life at the end of a shift. Working in a paramilitary organization, one in which you put your life on the line daily, creates a natural “us against the world” mentality. City leaders have been absentee landlords recently, allowing the internal investigation into Chasse’s death to drag out three frustrating and perplexing years – a disservice to both Chasse’s memory and the officers present for his death.

A union leader’s job is to get as much as he or she can for union members. Westerman, a genial, solidly built guy who could have played an extra on “The Sopranos,” may do that with this impressive display of organization.

Oregon labor law makes it hard to discipline police officers. City Council members seem determined to let the Chasse family’s wrongful death lawsuit play out in court, rather than settling. Judging by the turnout Tuesday, when an ocean of blue covered the sidewalk outside City Hall, the “no confidence” vote union leaders have called against Sizer and Saltzman seems likely to pass.

Yet to what end?

There’s been talk that Sizer –widely considered Portland’s best chief in a generation — may retire soon. She can’t do that now without looking as if she’s caved to union pressure. Mayor Sam Adams, who has been completely removed from the recent conversations, should have kept leadership of the bureau himself from the beginning. He cannot take it back now. You don’t give in to bullying.

It’s no coincidence that incidents of police force and the crime rate have both dropped in recent years as bureau leaders worked to lessen the divide between officers and civilians. Now that disconnect is growing again.

Most of us have few face-to-face interactions with the police. What we know comes from images on the news or in the paper. The recent ones include that snapshot of Humphreys and other officers standing around, drinking coffee and chatting, as Chasse lay prone and hog-tied on the sidewalk, and the grainy video of Humphreys firing his shotgun at a girl who’d already been put on the ground by another officer.

Now this, a remarkably well-attended, remarkably tone deaf rally.

“I am Chris Humphreys.” Are you sure that’s the message you want to send your constituents?

Portland cops made T-shirts once before. They included a smoking gun and the phrase, “Don’t Choke ‘Em, Smoke ‘Em,” to protest a new ban on the so-called “sleeper hold” after an off-duty security guard placed in the position died.

The two officers involved in Lloyd Stevenson’s death were cleared of criminal charges by a grand jury. The officers who sold the shirts were initially fired but won their jobs back after another hard political and legal push from union representatives.

The public relations damage from that sad incident took years to clean up.

Apparently our friends in blue need a history lesson.