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To (Not) Tell the Truth

Data Shows Reese Refused to Fire Two More Cops Accused of Lying

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GETTING A RAP for dishonesty is supposed to be something of a death sentence for a police officer's career. A cop caught lying can't be trusted with two of the basics of police work: writing reports and testifying in court.

And that's why, according to its latest batch of public reports, the city's Police Review Board (PRB) decisively urged Chief Mike Reese to fire three separate cops who seemed to struggle with the truth during investigations into their conduct.

Reese is already deep in a PR nightmare after merely demoting one of those cops—the newly minted Lieutenant Todd Wyatt. But that's hardly the worst of it. New data, obtained exclusively by the Mercury, reveals that all three cops were allowed to keep their jobs—one of them receiving just a demerit letter.

That revelation renews questions about the role of the PRB in discipline cases ["The Misconduct Files," News, Jan 16]. It also comes at the same time the Mercury has learned the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office is talking with Reese's office and the city attorney about how to better identify officers whose credibility is in such doubt they won't be called as witnesses at trial.

"This office currently is in discussions with the city attorney and the police bureau. But in a general way," Deputy District Attorney Don Rees, stressed. "It's not linked to one specific incident or officer."

And although that conversation started before the recent outcry, advocates and attorneys welcome it and quietly hope everyone keeps talking.

"There is a perception among the public in Portland that law enforcement misbehavior is not really being taken seriously by management at the police bureau or frankly by the DA's office," says one attorney who asked to remain anonymous.

No cop currently holds that verboten status, Reese says. And only one in recent history has even come close: former Portland Police Association President Scott Westerman—whose name was provided to the Mercury by the police bureau and not the DA's office, which refused to disclose it.

Westerman was let go because he lied to investigators, among other sins, after he was caught menacing another driver in a road-rage encounter—twice. His union never fought his firing. But if it did, and had he stayed on, he'd have been consigned to a job where he'd never be in a position to appear in court again.

Westerman's case is an extreme example, not least because his firing went unchallenged. But it also highlights just as starkly how dishonest a cop's conduct has to be, historically, before a chief and prosecutors would blow up that cop's career.

Prosecutors, because of a 1963 Supreme Court decision in Brady vs. Maryland, are legally obligated to turn over damaging information about witnesses to defense attorneys. That includes cops whose credibility has been compromised. Recent federal court decisions have sharpened that obligation—to the point that jurisdictions in California and Washington State, among others, not only curate a list of so-called "Brady" cops, but also release those lists to the public.

Wyatt, whose demotion has been grieved by the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association, apparently still wouldn't qualify for that status here—despite the road-rage and harassment allegations he also faced. The new cases suggest the Multnomah County DA's Office ought to have deep discussions with the police bureau about whether certain kinds of dishonesty and other criminal conduct, including DUIIs, are worse than others.

One wrinkle is how to treat an allegation sustained by a civilian review board like the PRB—but not by the chief, who, along with the police commissioner, makes the final determination on wrongdoing.

"Untruthfulness is an extremely serious allegation," police spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson said of Wyatt, "and his behavior did not rise to this level."

In the most interesting of the new cases, Reese set aside a unanimous dismissal vote for a cop who failed to file a use-of-force report and then was found to have lied and dodged questions to cover his tracks. The PRB said the officer lacked the credibility to continue working as a cop.

But Reese decided to give only a letter of reprimand. In doing so he rejected the word of the entire five-person panel—including a peer officer, the accused cop's supervisor, and a representative directly in the chief's office.

"The members expressed significant concern over [name redacted's] ability to function effectively as a police officer, since his failure to admit the truth compromises his professional credibility," says the board's latest report, released in January. "Without impeccable truthfulness, an officer cannot provide the service required by the PPB to the public."

In the second new case, the PRB voted 4-1 against an on-duty cop accused of lying to his boss after getting caught buying a TV 80 blocks from his assigned district. The board felt "there was clear and convincing evidence of his intent to deceive." But, just like in the Wyatt case, Reese went with a demotion.

The Mercury first asked the bureau for data comparing the chief's discipline against PRB recommendations, with explanations when the two differed, in early January. The bureau declined at first, but later relented and provided the comparison this week, but without the explanations. Before that reversal, the city's Independent Police Review director, Mary-Beth Baptista, separately told the Mercury she was planning to push an ordinance forcing that disclosure. Baptista privately receives that data.

The data goes back to 2008, before the current Police Review Board was created. Public review board reports, however, weren't released until 2011, making it impossible for a full analysis.

Since 2011, Reese has mostly sided with the PRB. In a few cases, he's exceeded the board's recommendation, like when he quadrupled the recommended suspension for two cops caught hitting a strip club.

But in a handful of others, he freelanced his own, lighter, discipline. When the PRB suggested one to two weeks of suspension and anger management for Sergeant Kyle Nice, a controversial cop ["The Tragic Legacy of James Chasse Jr.," News, Feb 6] who took out his gun during a road-rage confrontation, Reese decided a mere letter of reprimand would suffice.

He also ordered lighter-than-recommended discipline in one case involving an officer accused of using racial epithets, another case where an officer made an arrest in someone's bedroom, and another in which a cop was accused of discriminating against female employees.

Simpson, Reese's spokesman, declined to discuss specifics of the new discipline cases, citing state law. But he generally addressed the issue of dishonesty, saying the bureau regularly shares potential problems with prosecutors and leaves it up to them whether a finding is bad enough to warrant a career death sentence.

"That's a call the DA would have to make and weigh," he says. "Fortunately, it's not a big issue."

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