Legislative panel gets down to business on police use of force
NOTE: Most of this story was posted previously after the first round of committee hearings July 8-10, but the top has been rewritten to focus on the hearings scheduled July 29-31.
The Oregon Legislature's special committee on policing practices gets down to business this week (July 29-31) as members consider half a dozen bills to change how police carry out their duties.
The bills range from arbitration awards, disciplinary records and misconduct to law enforcement tools, uniforms and identification, and the use of force. The basic law on use of force was passed back in 1971, though under a 2007 law, lawmakers required agencies to come up with use-of-force plans on a county-by-county basis.
It will be the third round of meetings for the committee, which has heard from experts about the need for police and the public they serve to bridge their divide.
Norm Stamper says he has changed in the more than two decades since Seattle police confronted 50,000 protesters against the World Trade Organization in the fall of 1999.
He said police — organized along paramilitary lines — are increasingly separated from the people they serve. The violent confrontations between protesters and police in the "Battle of Seattle" resulted in vandalism and property damage, but also 157 arrests outside the no-protest zone and a $250,000 settlement by the city in 2004 — and Stamper's resignation as police chief in 2000.
Stamper didn't rehash those events when he testified July 10 to the committee. But he and other expert witnesses told lawmakers that police and the public have a responsibility to bridge the divide.
"If it is to be an authentic partnership, police would no longer make unilateral or arbitrary decisions about how that police department is going to operate under any circumstances — including a crowd control challenge," he said. "The bottom line for me is that the police and the public come together to co-plan, prepare and police all demonstrations and protests, spontaneous or planned."
But asked by Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, to name a community where there is such cooperation, Stamper said he could not think of one.
Stamper spent 34 years in law enforcement, most of them in San Diego, where he rose to the No. 2 position before he became chief in Seattle in 1994. He has since written two books, "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing" and "To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America's Police."
A similar point was made by Edward Maguire, a professor at Arizona State University and co-author of "Transforming the Police: 13 Key Reforms," released in January.
He said police must spend more time defusing a potential riot by mixing with the crowd, instead of preparing to respond by wearing body armor, face shields and helmets — and brandishing weapons, firing tear gas and flash-bang grenades.
"This idea of standing behind a skirmish line in riot gear and putting on a helmet is sometimes necessary. But we often see it used when it is unnecessary," he said.
"If people are throwing harmful objects at the police or engaged in other acts of violence or destruction, it's OK to enter the crowd to make an arrest. But we need to do so in a pinpoint fashion, not just firing chemical agents or lethal munitions at an entire crowd."
Under questioning by Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, Maguire conceded that his approach may require more officers at a scene, not fewer, but not in a show of force.
Police vs. public?
As a lawyer and the director of civil rights at the Oregon Justice Resource Center, Juan Chavez represents specific clients who allege police misconduct. Chavez said a massive police presence often triggers a hostile response from protesters.
"We often see those images in the news, the chaos, but we do not see what started the problem — the arrival of the police," he said.
"Police are not fundamentally a peaceful presence in Portland or in other cities. The protesters do not feel safer when they are there. When they arrive, people see they are ready for war, clad in armor, and people who have peaceably assembled before then become agitated."
"Indiscriminate use of force erodes trust between people and their governments."
The committee co-chairman is Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, an African American who has been a corrections officer, a police officer and a veteran of 24 years in the U.S. Army. Manning recalled that when he was not in his police uniform in Missouri, "my skin color did not change."
"I was trained for combat, but police officers are not supposed to be trained in combat. But once you give them the feel of combat, it is easy for them to develop a mindset," he said at the close of the hearing.
"I want to make sure we are protecting our law enforcement officers, give them every tool they need to go to work, complete their time at work, and return them to their families. But I want them to understand that they work for the people they have sworn an oath to protect and serve."
"I was trained for combat, but police officers are not supposed to be trained in combat. But once you give them the feel of combat, it is easy for them to develop a mindset." — Sen. James Manning.
The committee also heard from other expert witnesses, who testified about specific triggers such as police uniforms and police use of tear gas, flash-bang grenades and long-range acoustic devices known as sound cannons.
University of Oregon psychology professor Robert Mauro said that, while traditional blue uniforms draw mixed responses — depending on whether people see police as helpful or harmful — the war on drugs has introduced uniforms that make police indistinguishable from soldiers.
"There is not good evidence for a switch away from the traditional police uniform," he said.
After 18 years with a county sheriff's department in Kansas, retiring as a lieutenant, Michael Birzer has been a professor at Wichita State University. He said police should not wear camouflage uniforms or battle fatigues.
"It sends a message of distancing the police from the very communities they serve," he said.
"When police departments demonstrate a more aggressive militaristic look, coupled with police training that is often conducted in a paramilitary environment, the result is that police officers may begin to act and think like soldiers."
Brian Castner was an explosives expert for the U.S. Air Force in Iraq, but now works for Amnesty International, which has documented 125 instances of police violence in 40 states and Washington, D.C., including recent incidents in Portland, Salem and Eugene.
He likened some of the U.S. police responses to the crowd-control tactics used by Hong Kong police to suppress pro-democracy demonstrators in the former British colony, which now is under Chinese rule eroding guarantees of civil rights and due process.
"There are very limited circumstances in which tear gas is an appropriate use of force," he said. "The trend we have seen is that police do not actually view it as an escalation in the use of force. They use it, and use it quickly… Instead of communicating with protesters, they are using it in lieu of communication."
Peter Barr-Gillespie is executive vice president and chief research officer at Oregon Health & Science University. He also decried police use of tear gas — a recent special session of the Legislature curbed but did not ban its use — and at least in one instance in June, their use of a sound cannon against protesters in Portland. Someone standing close to such a device, he said, will hear sounds that are 10 times louder than a jet engine — and damage the ears.
"I understand the extraordinarily difficult position police are in, because some of the protesters are interested in using property destruction as a means of expressing their opposition to police violence," Barr-Gillespie, whose son has taken part in some of the protests, said. "But by using brutal and indiscriminate techniques like the sound devices and tear gas, police reinforce public perceptions of police being violent, which leads to a vicious cycle."
Webpage for the Joint Committee on Trasparent Policing and Use of Force Reform:
The Oregon Legislature's joint committee on police use of force will continue public hearings July 29 through July 31.
Members will hear testimony on six specific legislative concepts, which can be found on the committee webpage.
The Capitol is closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but people may submit testimony in writing or sign up in advance; the meeting is on the legislative website.
A link to the committee's webpage can be found with this story at PortlandTribune.comhere.
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