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Review of Frisking Case Prompts Police Training

The Eugene Police Department’s Civilian Review Board (CRB) has reviewed two cases that were filed with the Eugene Police Auditor’s office in the past nine months regarding allegations of officers unlawfully frisking African-American women. 

On Feb. 11 the CRB discussed a case in which a male officer patted down a female while her car was being impounded for not having insurance. Police Auditor Mark Gissiner says pat-down searches can only be performed if the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous or if he or she is being taken into custody.

“I found, based on her behavior, no reasonable suspicion that she was armed or dangerous,” Gissiner says. “And because they turned off their ICV [in-car video] to have a discussion about strategy and then forgot to turn it back on again, there’s no indication that she consented in either case.”

The case review prompted new EPD training on when it is appropriate to perform a pat-down search, or frisk. Police Chief Pete Kerns says some officers were under the impression that a frisk must be performed every time a vehicle is impounded. 

“You can only frisk somebody when you have reasonable suspicion in this unique set of circumstances that a frisk for weapons is appropriate,” Kerns says. “But some of them had that mistaken belief that it was automatic. It’s not.”

Gissiner says the office receives a few complaints each year regarding pat-down searches performed on females by male officers. Officers are not currently required to ask for backup from an officer of the same sex to perform a frisk, but Gissiner says it’s good practice to request it. He adds some officers may be deterred from asking because EPD’s female-to-male ratio is low, and it is unlikely a female officer will be available.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable or a waste of time, and I think it’s what the community would want — particularly the female community for the most part,” Gissiner says. 

He estimates the Police Auditor’s office receives 10 complaints every year in which the reporting parties allege they were searched because of their race. 

Chris Wig, CRB member and vice chair of the Democratic Party of Lane County, says currently anecdotal evidence is all that is available to assess the legitimacy of claims that racial profiling is occurring. He says the race and gender data collection process EPD is embarking on will provide proof of whether officers are profiling citizens.

“I think there is a broad consensus in this community,” Wig says, “including amongst the leadership and rank-and-file officers in the police department, that [racial profiling] is not OK.”