Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 2.12.09

Concurrency Dispute
Committee regains momentum toward implementation of November’s charter amendment 
By Carol Berg-Caldwell and Randy Prince

A month after launch, Eugene’s Police Auditor Ordinance Review Committee (PAORC) appears to have sailed past the biggest obstacle threatening to sink the implementation of effective citizen oversight. It didn’t hurt that the issue, concurrent investigations, has been a dispute between a city official, the police auditor, and the Lane County prosecutor’s office formerly run by District Attorney Douglas Harcleroad. 

Eight months ago, the DA threw a monkey wrench at Eugene’s attempt to apply citizen oversight in the notorious May 30 incident, when police Tasered an environmental demonstrator at Broadway and Willamette. Several onlookers, aghast at the use of potentially deadly force against street theater activist Ian Van Ornum, filed misconduct complaints against the Eugene officers involved. 

But DA Harcleroad had other priorities. He filed criminal charges against three demonstrators participating in the non-violent protest, charges that were scheduled for trial only this week (and have been delayed). The indictments were coupled with an order suspending investigation of the police misconduct allegations filed by citizens. That would have to wait until he finished prosecuting the demonstrators. The lengthy delay did not sit well with supporters of external oversight, including the Civilian Review Board and Interim Auditor Dawn Reynolds. She told PAORC the DA’s office had repeatedly refused to provide an official justification for the swipe at Eugene’s oversight system.

By the end of January, several PAORC members were disinclined to rely on the DA’s help in setting policy for concurrent investigations. Reynolds and Interim Chief Kerns were tasked with researching practices elsewhere and securing an expert for the committee to question. On Feb. 5, PAORC interviewed Pete Sandrock of Portland’s Deputy Police Auditor Office. Sandrock described a flexible approach that differentiated between misconduct complaints involving officers who were also being investigated on criminal charges and situations such as the May 30 Taser incident. When officers stand to be indicted, the oversight system puts its investigation on hold, as the prosecutor’s efforts are viewed as more substantial. However, when disputed incidents involve criminal charges against citizens, there is no barrier to concurrent investigation of police misconduct.

The committee embraced this approach, recommending consultation between the auditor and appropriate parties, but explicitly endorsing the auditor’s right to concurrent investigations. If it appears that the DA was left out of the decision, there’s more to the story. Kerns had wanted the DA to appear at PAORC meeting. Alex Gardner, the new DA, also wanted to appear at City Hall, but ended up writing a letter to Kerns. The letter, distributed to PAORC before last Thursday’s meeting, finally offered a Lane County DA’s view supportive of concurrent investigations. Issue resolved —Gardner’s approach aligned with both Portland’s and the sentiments of PAORC members. 

There is additional evidence that PAORC may succeed in implementing a viable oversight system. The committee has abandoned its plan to hold a public forum that would have allowed only 20 minutes for general public comment. The bulk of the two-hour session would have been spent in many small “station-discussions,” each focusing on only one or two provisions of the 18-point package. Instead, on Feb. 5 the committee reversed the apportionment of time for the two activities, tripling the time PAORC as a whole would hear public comments on the overall plan. The revision corresponded exactly to what oversight advocates had suggested during the public comments at the beginning of that meeting

Supporters of effective oversight of the EPD would be wise to attend PAORC’s public forum next week. Public comments appear to have influenced the committee to stay with its mission of finalizing a system that will meet public expectations of strong civilian oversight. The forum may see participation from the police union, which withdrew its members from the committee in mid-January, citing legal advice and bad faith on the part of city management over the methods used to adjust the collective bargaining agreement to new procedures. After the Feb. 5 meeting that restructured the public forum, the EPEA president wrote PAORC to express revived interest in a public dialogue about the union’s concerns. 

The PAORC public forum is scheduled for 5 pm Thursday, Feb. 19, in the Bascom-Tykeson room of the Eugene Library.


Carol Berg-Caldwell and Randy Prince are members of Communities for Ethical Law Enforcement.