Scapegoating Independent Police Review does not improve police accountability

Blog Post
Who decides if Portland police officers engaged in misconduct and imposes discipline? You may be surprised to learn it’s not Independent Police Review, despite what you may have read.

Recent media reports about a lawsuit against the City of Portland misrepresented the role of Independent Police Review in Portland’s police accountability system.

As an investigative and policy analysis division in the Auditor’s Office, Independent Police Review (IPR) does not decide whether a Portland officer has violated Police Bureau policy or what level of discipline should be imposed. Those decisions are the exclusive responsibility of the Police Commissioner and Police Chief and may be overturned by an arbitrator if the officers’ labor union appeals them.

It is therefore misleading to the public and the courts to say or imply that IPR “failed the public by not holding police accountable if they violate policy” or that it found that none of the officers who policed the protests had violated Bureau policies. Neither is true.

IPR is the central intake point for community member complaints that allege officer misconduct. It shares investigative responsibilities with the Bureau’s Internal Affairs, reviews all investigation files before they move forward through the system, recommends findings, and monitors officer-involved shooting investigations. An IPR manager is one of seven voting members of the Police Review Board, a confidential advisory body to the Chief. It consists of four police and three non-police members in cases involving excessive force allegations. Its decisions, which are recorded as individual votes of the members, are forwarded to the Chief as recommendations. The advisory board’s decisions are not binding on the Chief or the Police Commissioner.

City Council established the scope and limits of IPR’s authority in City Code. It is authorized to open cases on its own when complainants do not file allegations or wish to participate in an investigation, though they can be more challenging to investigate. It used that authority at an unprecedented level during the racial justice protests in 2020 and made numerous recommended findings that officers violated Bureau policies.

Police misconduct investigations are subject to federal and state law, City Code, and collective-bargaining agreements. Findings are based on a preponderance of the evidence against an identified officer. If an individual Portland officer cannot be identified or enough evidence gathered to support an allegation, the case is closed. IPR recommended that allegations against officers be sustained as policy violations every time there was sufficient evidence to do so. In its monitoring role, when IPR disagreed with a commander’s finding about policy violations, it referred the case for further review by the Police Review Board.

Complaints stemming from the 2020 protests are still being opened and investigated. Others are working their way through the discipline process or awaiting a final decision by the Police Chief or Police Commissioner. Pending the outcome of mediated amendments to the City’s settlement agreement with the Justice Department, IPR will investigate management decisions by incident commanders during the protests. IPR will also publish a forthcoming review of systemic problems for police accountability that surfaced during the protests with recommendations for improvement.

There is much to improve about policing and police accountability in Portland. Scapegoating the investigators instead of the decision-makers doesn’t help.