Discussion centers on use of force, officer training, culture within law enforcement departments

A virtual discussion brought together a panel of experts last week to discuss questions around justice reform.

The gathering was convened by Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann Wednesday evening, Sept. 23, and took on use of force; law enforcement practices and training; potential changes that can be made to funding; and where the community can go from here.

On the panel were Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, State Representative Chris Gorsek, and justice reform activists Shemar Lenox, with Gresham Stand Up, and Taji Chesimet, Raising Justice.

The discussion was moderated by Multnomah County's Local Public Safety Coordinating Committee Executive Director Abbey Stamp.

Gorsek spoke about a bill that was recently passed in the second short session of the Oregon Legislature. House Bill 4301 prohibits the use of a choke hold by police and corrections officers, with an exception being allowed in situations where there is imminent harm posed to law enforcement or the public. HB 4301 seemingly makes it so chokeholds won't be a common restraining method.

"I was never very fond of the chokehold because I was concerned by how close you had to get and the potential danger to that person," said Gorsek, who served as a police officer in Portland for almost a decade and now teaches criminal justice at Mt. Hood Community College."I think this is a positive step forward."

Gorsek is also working on a bill that would require all law enforcement agencies to implement body cameras. Gresham implemented the use of body cams by officers at the beginning of the year

Lenox spoke about future changes to law enforcement that would help protect everyone in the community and shift the focus back on community policing. He advocated for a one-strike penalty for any officer who uses excessive force; a public standardized registry for those found guilty of use of force or other violations; and revamped training for all departments across the state.

Many of the questions were posed to Sheriff Reese. The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office provides policing for Troutdale, Fairview, Wood Village, and unincorporated Multnomah County — so his deputies are a common sight in the region.

He said that 97% of arrests made within MCSO's jurisdiction are no-force-used.

"Usually we are able to use de-escalation and good communication skills to take the person into custody without incident," Reese said.

The times it is needed, Reese said, are usually when a confrontation is already happening as a deputy arrives. It could be a heated argument or fight between two individuals, or a domestic violence incident. Those situations could lead to a deputy stepping in and separating the parties.

Use of force by law enforcement officers includes putting their hands on someone to guide them, handcuffing, and pointing a taser or firearm. There is a scale to force, and Reese said his deputies try to match the force proportionally to what is going on.

For corrections officers, the most common use of force includes separating two adults attacking each other, or in the booking area where volatile situations occur as prisoners are being processed.

"That moment when they realize they will be in custody can be a point where somebody acts out," Reese said.

One particpant in the discussion asked how officers' mindsets can be changed, as many departments seem to view the community as "us versus them."

"Training at the state and local level have an inherent violence to them that pushes the mindset away from community well being and protecting others," said Chesimet, executive director of Raising Justice.

Reese agreed that training sets the foundation for a department's culture, and that a focus needs to be on hiring the right people.

"Policing isn't for everyone," he said.

Reese said his own training as a police officer in 1989 reinforced a fear of interacting with the community, and bred distrust between law enforcement and the people they are supposed to serve.

"We can teach officers to be confident and capable without fearing every interaction," he said.

Gorsek said his own training was inundated with fear as well.

"We need to emphasize we are seeking public safety officers," Gorsek added.

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.