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Watching the Watchers

Portland Copwatch Turns 20

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TWENTY YEARS AGO this spring, a group of Portland peace activists inflamed by the Gulf War were looking for a local issue on which to vent their passion and ire. It wasn't long until they found a worthy foil: the troubled Portland Police Bureau.

By July 1992, a group calling itself the People Overseeing Police Study Group was holding its first quarterly meeting—the first of many. Called Portland Copwatch since 1996, the group is still a bare-bones operation. It runs on the sweat of a few dozen volunteers and just a few thousand dollars a year (donate over at portlandcopwatch.org). But it does a lot with a little.

It offers a call-in line for people who feel wronged by police. It issues a newsletter, the People's Police Report, three times a year. And its volunteers reliably show up at city meetings and, sometimes, get the officials presiding over those meetings to pay attention.

The Mercury recently caught up with the heart of Copwatch, founding member Dan Handelman, on the milestone anniversary.

MERCURY: What were the factors and forces that spurred Copwatch's creation?

DAN HANDELMAN: In September of 1991, President [George H.W.] Bush came to Portland, and there was quite the ruckus. Police used pepper spray for the first time on protesters in broad swaths and pretty indiscriminately. In January 1992, Portland police shot and killed Nathan Thomas, a 12-year-old boy who'd been taken hostage in his own home in Laurelhurst. There was a huge outcry of "Why isn't there a civilian review board that can investigate these things?" Then in April 1992, when the Rodney King verdict came down, there were uprisings in Los Angeles and suddenly accountability became a big issue.

How big is Copwatch now, compared to when it started?

It fluctuates. There's a core of about a dozen people who help out and do copwatching, and maybe a pool of 30 or 40 more people who volunteer. An additional 800 or more people receive the newsletter, but some of those are members of the press or city officials, so there's probably 500 or 600 people whom we count as our supporters. Copwatch needs money to do its work; it's all volunteer. We've rarely gotten any kind of grant for anything—certainly no government grants.

How do you explain "copwatching" to someone who's never heard of the idea?

Copwatching is basically observing police behavior. One of the things we teach is not to assume who's right and who's wrong. You want to make sure that you're not assuming that just because someone has handcuffs, they're being wrongfully arrested. This is one of the fundamental issues we've struggled with from the beginning—that people see us as anti-police. We are anti-police-misconduct. We are for a police bureau that's free of corruption, brutality, and racism. We've met with every police chief since 1992, and they all say they agree. 

There are broader questions about whether we have a system that's ideal. But in the society we have, there are police officers, they're given the power to use force, and if that's going to happen, we have to hold them accountable. They're acting on our behalf, and you want to make sure they're acting in a way you'd want them to treat you, your mother, or your child. A lot of people don't think misconduct is an issue until it happens to them or someone they know.

Has the police bureau improved? Has community pressure paid off?

It feels like playing Whac-a-Mole. The number of shootings per year went down from the 1990s to the 2000s, but you look at it and the number of Taser uses, and it's off the charts. Incidentally, this is the 10th anniversary of Tasers in Portland. How exciting. But the number of Taser uses far exceeds the number of shootings ever recorded, even though they were introduced to us as replacement for a gun.

We've seen police attack protesters in the past, and then there's a lull, but not completely. But for the most part police brutality against protesters kind of waned after [children and others were pepper-sprayed during protests in 2002 and] 2003—which led to a giant lawsuit. And it resurged after Occupy Portland.

What's Copwatch's biggest issue? Real civilian oversight of police?

It's the same kind of Whac-a-Mole game. The Citizen Review Committee [a civilian group that handles appeals of police misconduct cases] was asking for more power last November and the city council and the city auditor basically told them no.

We would like to see them have their own civilian investigators, not retired police investigators. [The Independent Police Review (IPR), after a preliminary review, turns complaints over to the police bureau's internal affairs division for follow-up.] When we take a call on our report line and explain this to people, we get a huge sigh. Who wants the police investigating police? Nobody trusts that. Except everybody in city government.

What role does the Portland Police Association play in making change?

When we started, the police union in some ways felt like more of an 800-pound gorilla than it does now. The president was really well known as a bulldog, and their newsletter, which we've analyzed in every issue of our newsletter, was contentious toward citizens. That contentiousness has settled down a bit. The power of the union also waxes and wanes depending on its own actions. They did that huge march on city hall after the beanbag incident [against a 12-year-old girl] by Officer Chris Humphreys, and I don't feel the public thought that made them look very good. And the city got some things out of them in the next round of contract negotiations it might not have been able to.

They do have power. IPR was finally given the ability to actually ask questions of officers—so long as that's not prohibited by the police union contract. And guess what? The police union contract prohibits anyone besides cops asking officers questions.

We're very supportive of labor unions. But when you're starting to legislate public policy issues, that's where the problem starts.

Copwatch keeps track of everyone shot and/or killed by police. Whose deaths really helped rally the public?

I can think of five. One is Dickie Dow, a man with developmental disabilities who was beaten to death in 1998. That caused a lot of outrage. Then in 2001, José Mejía Poot, an immigrant farm worker was beaten off a bus and later shot inside a mental hospital. The officers who shot Poot were given awards for their involvement, which just caused even more outrage. That brought the black, white, and Latino communities together. That was around when the IPR was being created. IPR was originally not going to have anything to do with shooting deaths and deaths in custody, but it forced them to put in an annual review of shootings. That was a foot in the door. And now the IPR is going to the scene of shootings.

The third one was Kendra James, the woman shot in her car in 2003, and Officer Scott McCollister was laid off for six months and then he got reinstated. That was really the first time the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform came together. They did their own investigation of the paperwork made available and came to their own conclusion that McCollister was out of policy.

James Chasse Jr., [beaten to death by cops] in September 2006, was a huge milestone case. It brought about crisis intervention training for all officers. And the Aaron Campbell case is still causing changes. Even now the US Department of Justice is still investigating the police bureau for excessive force.

The Albina Ministerial Alliance is a really important organization. I sit on the steering committee there and I'm part of what's called their training and policy committee, and I think their voice has been a very important part of the accountability work in this city. 

Seems like the city realized pretty quickly it had to pay attention to you. So much so that it spied on you?

We didn't know about this until four years after it happened. At our first quarterly meeting, in Colonel Summers Park, there were two people who showed up, they signed up with fake names and addresses, and they were undercover informants sent by the bureau's criminal intelligence unit. They created a report listing every name, every organization people said they were affiliated with, and listed the stuff we talked about. The title of the document was "Civilian Police Review Board" or something like that.

Douglas Squirrel was a founding Copwatch member. He was a self-proclaimed anarchist. There was an anarchists "unconvention" in town at the X-Ray Cafe. There ended up being a huge standoff with police, and Squirrel goes down there on his bicycle. He was tackled and arrested. Other people's bail was set at $5,000; Squirrel's bail was set at $50,000 because they said he was the leader of the anarchists. [Squirrel sued the city—producing the best-named case ever: Squirrel v. Moose, in honor of then-Police Chief Charles Moose.] One of the pieces of paper that came out in his trial was this document showing we'd been spied on.

The judge ordered that document destroyed [because state law prohibits spying on political groups] and said criminal intelligence files had to be reviewed every two months and then every two years. But the city stopped doing it because a court order like that only has a 10-year shelf life. 

How is Copwatch received now?

The people in city hall and in the police bureau know we do our homework. We're not just knee-jerk reacting. We read documents. We study what people do in other cities. They give us the courtesy of listening to us. But it's not like they listen to us and do what we suggest. Sometimes they do it coincidentally and acknowledge it was something we suggested in the first place.

Part of it is this silo effect in city government. People don't want to step on the toes of the police commissioner. The ultimate arbiter of a misconduct appeal complaint is the whole city council, and all five of them will sit in judgment. In theory the whole city council is our police commission. 

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