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Eugene Weekly : News : 7.2.09




Police Abuse

Oversight report exposes EPD misconduct

by Alan Pittman

The Eugene Police Department has a pattern and practice of violating citizen’s constitutional rights and using excessive force, according to the first annual report of the independent police auditor and Civilian Review Board (CRB).

 The 2008 annual report sheds rare light into the dark workings of Eugene’s secretive system of police policing themselves. But it’s unclear if the report released last month will result in actual reform. 

The EPD and City Council have appeared more concerned about police officer complaints against the independent auditor and CRB than about actual complaints of police officer abuse. Many of the cases cited in the report appear to involve serious crimes by Eugene police officers — kidnapping, assault, menacing, theft, home invasion, official misconduct — but there’s no indication the local district attorney has brought any charges. The police also apparently failed to discipline officers in almost all the cases sighted by the report.

Ignoring the report and its numerous recommendations for reform could leave the city open to expensive lawsuits. The city spent $5 million to settle lawsuits after the city ignored a previous auditor’s report that the city failed to investigate a complaint against officer and serial sex offender Roger Magaña. 

The police auditor is a former prosecutor and municipal court judge, and the CRB includes a municipal judge working outside Eugene, a chaplain, surgeon, general contractor and a civil attorney. After a year of oversight, they reported that while EPD has many good officers, it also has many who violate civil rights. 

Violating free speech. “Civilian oversight in Eugene has revealed that the department does not train on the First Amendment and the rights of civilians to free speech and assembly,” the auditor and review board found. The report noted a case in which an officer illegally arrested and jailed a person for protesting peacefully on a public sidewalk. 

Due to City Manager Jon Ruiz’s requirement of secrecy regarding police misconduct, the report does not list the names of complainants, police officers or discipline imposed, if any.

The independent report also found a pattern of  “a number of cases in which individuals were threatened with arrest or arrested while in the act of protesting the arrest of another person” in violation of Oregon free speech law. The report sites these case examples:

• A complainant was arrested for “inter-fering” after peacefully speaking against the arrest of two people for a noise complaint at a party.

• A citizen who saw police struggle with and arrest a bleeding suspect yelled from 75 feet away that he was there to witness the use of force. Officers repeatedly threatened the witness with arrest if he did not leave the scene. This incident “also raised the issue of retaliation,” the report stated. 

• A downtown businesswoman who peacefully questioned the use of force against a suspect outside her business was repeatedly warned to “stop interfering.” When officers found out she had complained, they threatened to arrest her for interfering, but backed down. 

Biased investigations. The report found that police are frequently biased in investigating complaints against fellow officers. EPD Internal Affairs investigators have “lectured complainants and civilian witnesses;” have asked “leading questions” of both civilian witnesses and officers at critical junctures; and have referred to officers under investigation as “my officers,” according to the report. 

The report recommended that rather than hiring IA officers from within, the EPD copy Portland’s practice of hiring retired detectives recruited from outside the city to conduct less biased investigations. 

Home invasion. “We have seen a noticeable number of instances in which EPD officers should have sought a warrant before searching and in which the consent to search was either denied or was the result of undue pressure on the part of the officers,” the report found. The report cited these cases as examples:

• After a husband refused to let police search his house, the police “pressured the subject’s wife” to allow them to search. “She was detained outside, in the rain, with a toddler for several hours” until she eventually gave in, the report said. Case law is clear that the warrantless search was illegal after the husband refused, according to the report.

• An officer entered a house and searched a teenager’s room without getting a warrant or permission from the child or the child’s parents. 

• A police sergeant painfully wrenched a grandmother’s arm and wrist and forced her out of her home after the elderly woman refused to go outside in her nightgown in front of neighbors. Police wanted to search her home a second time without a warrant after a family fight the previous day. 

Abusing the homeless. The report noted many complaints from the homeless alleging police “destruction of private property (such as cell phones), random searches of backpacks and personal belongings and excessive use of force.”

For example, the report described a longstanding illegal practice by the EPD of using “blanket” trespass authorizations from businesses to arrest “anyone the officers deem to be someone the property owner might not want on his or her property.” The report states that “this practice criminalizes homelessness and mental illness and grants excessive authority to EPD officers.” The practice violates the legal requirement that trespassing charges are “not predetermined based on class or mental illness” but “given to individuals on a specific, identifiable basis.”

Another longstanding illegal practice by the EPD involved seizing or destroying bikes, unopened alcoholic beverages, cameras, clothes, sleeping bags and other possessions of homeless people without legal cause, according to the report.

Drunk cops. The report noted three allegations of criminal conduct involving drunk driving by officers, apparently off duty. “The criminal allegations were the result of officers being charged with DUII and in each case the officer resigned.”

Three officers out of 170 found drunk driving in one year could represent a big drinking problem at EPD. The EPD rate per officer for DUII is more than three times that in the general Eugene population. City Manager Ruiz has agreed with the police union to tightly restrict the alcohol testing of officers, according to the police union’s contract. 

Drunk driving is one of the leading criminal causes of death in Eugene, with just one recent incident killing two adults and two children. But it’s unclear if it’s a top priority for EPD. The number of DUII arrests and citations by Eugene police dropped 26 percent last year.

Police assault. The report noted that with Eugene police, “force, once required, too quickly escalates to excessive force and injury to the arrestee.”

Training of EPD officers “often disproportionately emphasizes officer safety to the detriment of the safety of civilians,” the report states. “The community has repeatedly expressed its preference for community policing. The department continues to emphasize paramilitary training.”

Taser misuse. “Members of the community share our concern that the [Taser] is being used too often as a pain compliance tool and not in a manner in which it represents a clear alternative to lethal force,” the report states. 

The report cited a case in which police Tasered a non-responsive, non-threatening mentally ill man who was standing still. Police gave the man a warning that it wasn’t clear the ill man understood. The report recommended all officers receive training in dealing with the mentally ill and that Taser warnings should be understandable. In another case, police Tasered the driver of a moving car in apparent violation of safety policy, according to the report. 

Oversight resistance. Eugene citizens overwhelmingly supported independent police oversight in two charter votes. But the report documented police resistance to independent scrutiny over the past year. In violation of city law, the EPD and the police union will not allow the police auditor to question officers who are under investigation.

The EPD has effectively canceled misconduct investigations and has delayed investigations of officer misconduct for up to a year pending the outcome of criminal trials, the report states. “No other oversight system in the U.S. requires consecutive criminal and administrative investigations when civilians are the ones who have been criminally charged,” the report notes. “Indeed, most agencies have concurrent administrative and criminal investigations when police officers have been charged criminally.”