Posted by Jonathan Maus ( Publisher/Editor ) on November 12th, 2007 at 4:32 pm
Last Friday at City Hall, Commissioner Sam Adams hosted a meeting to discuss the enforcement issues that have caused frustration and outrage in the bike community and a public relations crisis for the Police Bureau.
At the table were representatives from the Police Bureau including both Chief Sizer and Assistant Chief Lynnae Berg, along with Traffic Division Captain Vince Jarmer. Also around the table were top staffers from Adams’ office, the Mayor’s office (the Mayor himself did not attend), City Attorney Dave Worboril, Multnomah County DA Chuck Sparks, Scott Bricker and Karl Rohde from the BTA, city traffic engineer Rob Burchfield, lawyer Mark Ginsberg, PDOT traffic safety guru Greg Raisman, City bike coordinator Roger Geller, and others.
The intention of the meeting was to define and discuss the issues and concerns surrounding police policy and their handling of communications following a recent string fatal and serious traffic collisions.
Commissioner Adams facilitated the discussion. Some of the issues brought up were (not a complete list):
- Community tensions
- The feeling that we (bureaucrats, citizens, politicians, advocates, police, etc…) all need to come together on these issues
- Police communication and public relations policies and practices
- Enforcement: priorities, community perception, “enforcement as education”
- Police crash investigation and citation policies
I was encouraged by the opening words and tone of Chief Sizer. She expressed that they have clearly heard the community outcry and that they, “want to make things better”. She said the Police Bureau doesn’t want to be “that big boulder” that has to be moved uphill.
On the topic of improved communications following high-profile crashes, Chief Sizer said, “We have developed protocols on other issues of great community sensitivity that may have applicability here.” She then told us about their Crisis Response Team program.
The way she sees it, these Teams would be made up of activists and community volunteers and would be on-call, first-responders. The idea would be to put members of this Team at the “front end of information,” to “act as an avenue of communication between the community and the Police Bureau.”
If made up of the right people, and if given a central public relations function, this Crisis Response Team could be a positive measure.
On the issue of the Bureau’s handling of PR immediately following bike/car crashes, we all agreed that improvements could be made. Voicing the same concern I pointed out in my story about the Marine Drive collision, I proposed a new policy that would standardize what the Police Bureau includes in their press releases.
The idea, which everyone seemed to agree to (please understand this is not finalized), is that the Public Information Office (PIO) shouldn’t release any speculative facts immediately following a collision.
The hope is to work with the PIO to created a standardized list of facts that would be included in the press releases. This would prevent any insinuation of blame, or speculation about what happened, to become part of media coverage and resulting public dialogue.
We also addressed how police personnel conduct themselves in media interviews following collisions. On that front we came up with similar possible solutions: say nothing speculative and make sure that spokespersons demonstrate the utmost in sensitivity. Or, as one person put it, the strategy should be “message neutrality”.
As expected, much of the meeting centered around the issue of investigations and issuance (or not) of citations at the time of collisions (both of those issues are intertwined).
On the question of when investigations are performed, Chief Sizer read directly from the Police Policy Manual for a list of circumstances that automatically trigger an investigation.
Multnomah County DA Chuck Sparks also re-iterated the Police Bureau’s policy on issuing citations. He explained that it is standard policy to not issue citations at fatal collisions because there’s a fear that doing so could hamper the DA’s case. Sparks said that if a citation was issued and then more serious charges were brought up later, those charges might not stick because of double jeopardy (although Sparks admitted this has never actually happened).
With both of these policies (the investigation threshold and citations), the problem still seems to lie with officer discretion.
In both situations, examples have made clear that responding officers have the discretion to make exceptions to these rules. Officers can perform mini-investigations at the scene regardless of injury level, and based on that informal investigation they can (and do) issue citations.
I remain convinced that the current policy of not issuing a citation when someone clearly breaks a law — even if there’s been a fatality — has a profound negative impact on public safety, perception and education. I can appreciate and understand the official policy, but I still feel something needs to change.
Also discussed was the injury threshold required to trigger a full investigation. Lawyer Mark Ginsberg commented that this threshold has “ratcheted up” in past years — going from just “ambulance on scene” to its current level (only Trauma level injuries).
The Police maintain their need for this high threshold simply because they claim it’s a staff resource and workload issue.
On that note, someone pointed out that on the morning Siobhan Doyle was right-hooked (at the same intersection that claimed the life of Brett Jarolimek just two weeks before), Traffic Division officers were at Ladds Circle performing a stop-sign enforcement action (a location where cyclists notoriously get caught for rolling through).
As for enforcement actions (also known by some as “stings”), many around the table called for more of them to happen at intersections known to be dangerous and/or uncomfortable to cyclists. Also, a repeated call was issued for “right-hook” stings (promised by Commissioner Adams at the bike safety press conference).
Toward the end of the meeting, Chief Sizer agreed (at least in spirit) to work with Commissioner Adams’ staff to draft an official “Community Policing Agreement”. This was the first time I had ever heard of such a document, but apparently it’s an agreement that would be entered into by members of the bike community and the Police. Adams — who has experience with such agreements due to his tenure as Chief of Staff to Former Mayor Vera Katz (the Mayor oversees the Police bureau) — said it would “hold [all of] us accountable to doing something.”
If/when this agreement is created and agreed upon, it would be a positive step forward.
In the end, while no major changes in policy or cooperative initiatives were agreed upon at this meeting, it’s clear that bike issues are on the Chief’s radar. From here on out, it’s going to be an educational and relationship-building process for everyone involved.
Public scrutiny and outcry has forced these issues into the consciousness of Chief Sizer, the Police Bureau, and the entire city of Portland. Based on that fact alone, I’m hopeful that positive changes lie ahead.
The exact nature and timing of those changes, however, is still up in the air.
[Please note: This writeup does not include everything that was discussed. I’m awaiting an official meeting write-up from Commissioner Adams’ office that includes an outline of what was discussed, action items, and the Community Policing Agreement referred to above.]