Thursday, February 13, 2003

Life behind the badge

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Gary and I almost had him. The cop was just about pinned on the ground, with Gary on his arms and upper body and me holding his legs. But then he broke free, and we had to pile back on top of him, grabbing whatever we could. A small crowd watched us, as did two police officers.

I lifted the cop a bit and rolled him onto his side, but he got away again. Over and over, we tried to pin him down, but he fought us off with his feet and hands, and by squirming away at just the right time. I didn’t think we’d ever get him to stop resisting. It was as if we were fighting for our lives, and I couldn’t keep a hold on him for long.

Then the timer went off. Our two minutes were over. Gary and I got up, shook hands with the cop and sat back down with the rest of the class. Rather than being tackled by a whole raft of police officers, trundled into a waiting squad car, and locked up in the Cumberland County Jail for the night, Gary and I went home that evening, having learned from experience how hard it is to wrestle on the ground with someone who doesn’t want to be pinned down.

Gary and I — and about 15 other Portland residents — were students in the Portland Police Department’s Civilian Police Academy (see ÒPolice Business,Ó July 27, 2001, by Noah Bruce), which had its final class and graduation January 29. (Another class series is expected to start in the fall, for those who missed this one.)

We started the 11-week class back at the end of October, meeting for two hours each Wednesday night with Portland police officers and others involved in the public safety community. Not passive listeners, my classmates and I jumped onto the mat and wrestled with the hard reality of life behind the badge.

The intent of the class was to get us to help the Portland police fix some of their public-relations problems. The very first handout we received told us we were part of an effort to Òdevelop positive relationsÓ between the Portland cops and the public, to teach regular citizens about how police work really is.

But the class became more than that — citizens questioned the police, cops expressed frustration at the selectivity of the Portland Press Herald, and a candid forum for discussions opened where a cavern of ignorance and misunderstanding had been before. We addressed current and past police encounters, whether our own or ones we had heard about or read about in the news, talking about the gory details of a murder scene or the petty whines of people who think they don’t deserve a ticket.

It couldn’t have been timed better. It just happened that during the time our class was running: two officers had excessive-force lawsuits filed against them for allegedly beating a handcuffed prisoner; a third officer was sued for pulling a woman out of her Old Port apartment window onto a fire escape; Jeffery ÒRussÓ Gorman went on trial and was convicted for the murder of Amy St. Laurent; an Olympia Sports employee was stabbed to death while chasing a suspected shoplifter; and Lt. Ted Ross was involved in an alcohol-related car accident while driving his unmarked police cruiser home from an open-bar party, hosted by Police Chief Michael Chitwood, and drinks at another bar with two senior police officers.

Also during the time span of the class, Portland officers made a large number of arrests for a wide variety of crimes, investigated several unattended deaths including some possibly related to methadone or other drug overdoses, dealt with homeless people on the streets and students in need at the city’s schools, conducted traffic stops — among the most dangerous ÒroutineÓ things police officers do — on a regular basis around the clock, and patrolled the streets of Portland to protect us all from potential wrongdoers.

All of these were on the table for discussion. Admittedly, the police spent more time on the planned curriculum than on Òbreaking news,Ó but as relevant events occurred, either officers or class members used them as examples in discussion.

Open to the public

The openness in the classroom was refreshing and, frankly, surprising. I am a resident of Portland and work as a reporter for the Current and American Journal newspapers in the southern and western suburbs of the city. In my limited dealings with Portland cops as a private citizen, I had found the two or three I had met to be pleasant men (I hadn’t met any women on the force before the class) who were interested in helping me. And they were professional police officers, keeping their physical distance in case I turned out to be a bit of a loony who secretly wanted to hurt them, and keeping their emotional distance, too, while I described my version of events.

In my professional capacity, I had learned from experience that even when Chief Chitwood had something to say, it is still not easy to get to speak with him. (He usually ended up making time for me after I camped out in his assistant’s office or called hourly to leave messages.) Indeed, neither Chitwood nor his deputy chiefs ever appeared before our class, not even at our Ògraduation.Ó Chitwood left his officers to assure us that he really wanted the department to be open to public scrutiny and that he supported the idea of the class. He never took even a moment to thank the class members or its teachers for doing his job: openly showing the people how the police conduct their business.

Most police chiefs in the area, and most officers and detectives, are easier to get in touch with and offer more information more readily, including detailed police logs with information on what happened where and when, which Portland does not issue. (You’ll never read about them in the Press Herald, because their reporters don’t ask for the logs, I was told. So far, since the closing of the old CBW, I am the only person to ask for — or receive — a list of people arrested by the Portland Police Department.)

And every chief I know would jump at the chance to talk to a group of 20 people interested in police work, especially if the group had volunteered two hours a week to meet just down the hall from the chief’s office. All would have taken the time to stop in and tell us what they do. Chitwood couldn’t face us, but kudos to the officers who did, carrying on valiantly despite an absentee chief.

I was curious what would happen when regular Portland police officers were put in front of a group of people and asked to explain what they do and how and why they do it. I feared they might clam up and deliver a prepared script before leaving the room, but hoped they would really engage us in a discussion about police work — which they did.

The inside scoop

We got candid, inside views of police work, from detectives, evidence technicians and patrol officers. After the Gorman trial concluded, we learned from Sgt. Dan Young, the class organizer and lead detective investigating Amy St. Laurent’s death, how police located Eric Rubright, the friend who was visiting Amy from Florida and went to the Pavilion with her, only to lose track of her later: Police got the records of Rubright’s rental car from the jetport and put out a radio call for officers to look for the car, found later parked in the Old Port.

Young and a colleague drove there in an unmarked car and parked right behind Rubright’s car, he told us. And as they were discussing which bar to start looking in, a young man came up and knocked on the window. He wanted them to back up a bit so he could get out of his parking space. It was Rubright.

While this particular story has no bearing on the Gorman case or its outcome, it is this type of inside view that improves trust between the public and the police. Openness is the key to confidence. And just like many other ethical issues, it is not the facts of a situation but the appearances that matter most.

The police officers who spoke to our class were honest and open about the work they do and its opportunities and challenges. They did not hide from reality; they could not do so, as they live it daily. It is this openness that the department should encourage at all times, not just in a safe group of 20 prescreened students sitting in a room inside the police station. (We had to agree to criminal background checks before being accepted into the class. As Young said, ÒWe’re not here to teach crooks how to work the system.Ó)

Officers spoke about the problems the department has had with staffing lately: Now down 17 officers and required to assign 11 exclusively to the jetport, patrol numbers and particularly community policing resources are stretched beyond the limit.

But they sunk our teeth into meatier issues: There is heroin in our schools, School Resource Officer Janelle Dunn told us flatly. ÒKids are starting drugs at age 10 now,Ó and parents regularly smoke pot with their kids, leading her to consider drug testing for all athletes.

Dunn also told us seven kids have been expelled from Deering in the last two years, all for either dealing drugs on campus or assaulting people on school grounds. She painted with a detailed brush the issues facing our teenagers, and the support they need but so often don’t find at home. I had to wonder why we hadn’t read about these issues in the local daily newspaper, or heard about them on television.

We asked Detective Bob Doherty, a Portland officer assigned to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, about the types of drugs available on the street in Portland and where we could get them. He wouldn’t tell us where, but he said we could ask around and easily find marijuana, methadone, heroin, crack, cocaine, Ecstasy, and prescription opiates like Oxycontin all readily available in our city, despite the best efforts of police. He hasn’t seen methamphetamine or crystal meth yet, though those drugs are ripping apart the social fabric of the rural Midwest.

Sgt. Scot Mattox told us about OUI enforcement, including that officers must have articulable reasons for making traffic stops, but Òare encouraged to [do so] when they can.Ó Officers know how to detect drivers’ impairments from all kinds substances, and are experts at it, Mattox told us, not knowing he was foreshadowing accusations to the contrary, after Lt. Ted Ross was involved in an accident, which even he admitted was alcohol-related, but was not booked for OUI.

We learned from Officer Michelle Cole and K-9 Karla that the department has a bomb dog it can use to search buildings after bomb threats. But the schools, Cole told us, are so reluctant to have students miss class or stand outside in cold weather that they won’t bother with a search by the best tool we have, a dog’s nose. Instead, they’ll risk the lives of Portland’s kids to make sure they all get another 30 minutes of algebra.

We learned from Detective Scott Dunham how hard it is to talk to a child victim of a sex crime, when some kids — depending on their age — are embarrassed about what happened and ashamed to talk about it.

Dunham’s quiet manner made him seem a bit awkward when teaching a class, but surely is a strength when he is speaking to kids about what Daddy or Uncle (or Aunt) did, as well as when he is gently asking potential pedophiles to spill the details of the heinous act. ÒIf they can’t tell me, there’s no way they’re going to reveal what happened in a courtroom,Ó Dunham said.

Dunham’s chief tactic is minimizing the seriousness of the incident, even though the interrogation is often part of a felony investigation. ÒI’m going to try and trick him. I can do that because the Supreme Court says I can,Ó he told us. Some of the offenders he has interviewed have thanked him at the end of the session, for helping them talk about what happened. No doubt they didn’t thank him as they were carted away to jail.

And after they get out, they get ample chance to thank Dunham again when he sees them in his role as administrator of sex-offender registration. There are between 50 and 80 sex offenders in Portland, and the police department keeps a book of them for public review, Dunham said.

Force and too much force

By far the most interesting conversation was about use of control or use of force by officers, led by Michael Cunniff, a 27-year veteran of federal law-enforcement agencies who is now an attorney — often defending police officers accused of wrongdoing, including excessive use of force.

The stage had been set early in the class, when two police officers came in to show us how difficult it actually is to physically arrest someone who doesn’t want to be handcuffed. Though police officers often have superior strength, their strength is handicapped a bit by all the stuff they have to drag around: gun, ammunition, handcuffs, radio, pepper spray, and more. Dragging all that to the bathroom is tiring, much less running after a bad guy who doesn’t want to be caught. And once officers are lucky enough to catch up to the suspect, they still have to make sure the guy can’t grab a gun out of an officer’s holster.

As Gary and I learned by wrestling a cop, even two-on-one in a friendly sort of way is really difficult, not to mention our play-fighting rules: no punching, and stop when you get too close to the edge of the mat. Sounds like a pansy fight, compared to what we could have been up against — a herd of cops with hard knees and elbows, trying to pin our asses to the pavement.

We learned from officers Ed Leadbetter and Kevin Cashman that officers can’t just jump on people for no reason. Laws and courts have set out measured levels of escalation of force, from an officer just being present, through to voice commands, physical control and restraint, chemical agents, temporary incapacitation, and finally to deadly force. To stay within the law and still come home in one piece, officers must move fluidly among these levels, depending on whether a woman really does want help finding her dog, or turns out to be an escaped felon in disguise.

Cunniff talked us through a short scenario to demonstrate the challenges of this. We were working the night shift out of Dragnet. The whole class was there, in a single patrol car and in the body of one lonely officer, checking businesses on the late shift. It was midnight as we pulled through a K-mart parking lot. We spotted a man standing next to a window, and then noticed the window was broken.

As each stage of the scenario unfolded, people in the class wanted to do more, to use more force, than Cunniff said we were allowed to use. As our imaginary suspect walked away with his hand in his coat, several of us would have killed him. Most of the rest would have jumped him. I was truly glad we weren’t handed badges and guns and sent out to patrol the streets. Police officers get training in how to do this, not only safely but legally. We didn’t bother with either safety or legality, jumping in like hotheads, thinking we were protecting ourselves when really we were making sure we lived to stand trial in the morning.

Even sitting safely in chairs in the police station gym, it was scary to play the role of police officer faced with hundreds of split-second decisions, standing in a parking lot at night. We wanted to protect ourselves from whomever this guy was. Maybe he was walking his dog like he said, or maybe he was a lookout for the guy inside the store carting off televisions. We still don’t know.

The point Cunniff made well was that officers have a huge responsibility and do it right more often than not. But they are human and want to go home in one piece at the end of their shifts. They can be nervous, but only rarely don’t do it right.

For that matter, when it had been our turn several weeks before, we hadn’t done so well either. Each member of the class got to try out making those decisions, taking turns at a simulated shooting range in the basement of the Federal Courthouse in Portland. Faced with filmed scenarios, we had to decide when to shoot, or if we should shoot at all. It was rough.

Many of us shot too soon, before there was a real threat to our safety, opening the door to a big lawsuit. A surprising number of us missed even when we did pull the trigger. It was fun, but as we exited the shooting room in pairs, the glee of firing powerful handguns (with electronic triggers and no kick-back) faded in the murky basement atmosphere. As those who hadn’t gone in yet asked for tips about what to look for when they entered the Room of Certain Death, we who had been shot dead moments before by video suspects came to realize the grave danger wearing the badge brings.

Cunniff reminded us that we need to look at context, something often missing in the local daily. Of 70,000 calls for Portland police service last year, there were only 82 complaints. About 50 of those, Cunniff said, were filed by officers against each other, usually as a result of some type of internal incident review.

Not all involved allegations of excessive use of force, either: Some were because an officer didn’t show up in court to testify about a speeding ticket when he was supposed to, or broke some other department guideline designed to keep order in the group charged with keeping order in the city. Complaints also do not indicate misconduct occurred. Instead, they trigger an internal investigation to determine if an officer did anything wrong.

Most complaints from the public develop in a Òrelatively minor situation where the officer is trying to be cautious,Ó Cunniff said. Just like the K-mart parking lot in our scenario, nervous cops do sometimes get carried away. If they do use force, they have the sure and swift retribution of paperwork. After every encounter in which they did more than give voice commands, Portland officers have to file an internal report, which is then reviewed by supervisors and internal affairs for possible wrongdoing. If any is found, a complaint is filed, even before a member of the public calls in with a bruise or a broken bone.

Cunniff and Young reminded us that officers are human beings and can make mistakes, even if they are polygraphed and submit to background checks and psychological exams before even being hired, and are regularly re-screened before promotions.

It was the case Chitwood should be making, but never does: Some Portland officers make mistakes, but not many. Most officers do their jobs well, and work hard to do the right thing by everyone involved, from victim to suspect. But they are human, and we should expect some errors from time to time. We should also expect the department to make amends.

Instead, Chitwood supports accused officers blindly, even when they are wrong, or before he knows if they are. He puts egg on his face and the face of every officer when he opens his mouth without knowing the facts. He should wait until he knows the full story, and then give it to us completely, opening the police department to public scrutiny, to earn back lost public confidence. He should give every citizen of Portland a chance to see the inside of the department the way our class did, to understand, to ask questions, and to get honest, complete answers.