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Wednesday, September 03, 2003  

Perverse Portland: Police scandal outs city

The "second city" of the Pacific Northwest receives accolades far and wide for some aspects of its lifestyle, including urban design, mass transit and being bicycle and pedestrian friendly. However, Portland also has a perverse streak that it has now presented for national scrutiny.

Hey, you -- the reader heading for the door! The fact I am writing about a place way out West somewhere does not mean what I have to say isn't generally of interest. Portland is, as I said, a leader among cities in many ways. Furthermore, this anecdote is about police chiefs and those guys (they're almost always males) hop from city to city like the human equivalent of Mexican jumping beans. The person who is our police chief one day could be yours the next. So, I suggest you stay and read on.

Portland Mayor Vera Katz fired Police Chief Mark Kroeker Friday. The dismissal was so shoddy it seemed the incompetent work of a City Hall intern not a veteran of a decade. After claiming she was standing by the chief, the mayor used a friend to shove him out the door.

Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker, visibly upset with tears welling in his eyes, announced Friday afternoon that he would resign under pressure from Mayor Vera Katz.

"This resignation was requested of me through some intermediary," Kroeker said. "I believe it would have been better had we had an opportunity to discuss the conditions, and to strategically work together towards a solution of those problems that continue for the bureau."

. . .Kroeker, looking pale and tired, issued his announcement at the Justice Center Friday afternoon about 45 minutes after he sent a one-page letter to the mayor saying he was resigning effective Oct. 17.

The 59-year-old chief, his supporters and even critics blasted the way Katz handled his ouster. While the mayor publicly and repeatedly voiced her support for the chief throughout the difficult week, city and law enforcement insiders said ex-City Commissioner Mike Lindberg relayed her ultimatum to Kroeker: Resign by 11 a.m. Tuesday, or she'd fire him.

Lindberg, describing himself as a personal adviser to the chief, acknowledged he met with Kroeker midweek. On Friday, Lindberg was reluctant to say what was discussed.

Considering that the mayor has just months left in her term and has announced she will not seek reelection, firing the current police chief at this time is ill-conceived. Furthermore, Kroeker recently took steps to distance himself from some of his errors of the past, including suspending a cop who shot an unarmed suspect and agreeing with a report that said the Portland Police Department has a history of making a mess of investigations into incidents involving shootings or other extreme uses of force.

Some of Kroeker's errors, such as presenting awards to officers who shot and killed a mental patient who became unruly in a psychiatric hospital are embarassing.

Kroeker's resignation caps a tumultuous 31/2-year tenure in which the chief stumbled from one controversy to another. At various points, he came under fire from Latino groups outraged by his awards to two officers involved in the shooting death of a Mexican citizen in a local psychiatric hospital. Gay activists took offense at his antigay remarks taped a decade ago. And tensions came to a head this year in the African American community when a Portland police officer shot and killed a 21-year-old black woman who drove away from a traffic stop.

In the past week, the chief accepted an outside consultant's blistering report on the Portland Police Bureau's reviews and investigations of police shootings, faced criticism and fierce demands from dismayed city commissioners, and riled the rank and file with his 51/2-month suspension of an officer.

However, I've lived in about five cities and, as a journalist, scrutinized police chiefs pretty closely. I cannot honestly say Mark Kroeker was worse than others I've observed. Instead, his problem seems to have been the inability to form a rapport with people in Portland, on either the macro or micro level. Oregonian columnist David Sarasohn has this to say about him.

. . .Usually, police chiefs appear in public surrounded by uniforms -- and when things are going well, by suits -- but Friday he stood by himself behind a lectern, with only his statement, and when he'd finished with it he walked away.

Being alone, or at least disconnected, always seemed to be part of Mark Kroeker's difficulties. Katz brought him up from the Los Angeles Police Department, where the police cars say "To Protect and Serve" but everybody knows it's just a prop. It was a curious place to look for a Portland police chief, and from the beginning Kroeker seemed oddly matched to a city that sees policing not just as an episode of "Dragnet" but also something like a call-in talk show.

Somehow, Kroeker, an impressively smart man who'd done some impressive things, never quite got connected in Portland. With every problem, with every complaint and charge of a cover-up, more groups attacked the bureau and demanded changes. Somehow, he never seemed any more responsive to them than the mayor was to him on Friday.

So, the inability to emote Portland style seems to have cost us a police chief -- and not for the first time. Former top cop Charles Moose departed these parts for much the same reason, though he was not unceremoniously kicked out. He was regularly upbraided if he, an African-American, dared mention any of the instances of discrimination I am sure he did experience in this not quite perfect city. Moose, who went on to achieve fame for solving the D.C. sniper shootings case, has since resigned from the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland. I can't help but wonder if fatigue with what he went through in perverse Portland played a part in his decision to leave law enforcement.

The mayor's 'solution' to the problems of the police department is to shoehorn a veteran of the force who happens to be black into the position of police chief. She seems to think having a minority in the job will still protests about police conduct. I doubt that. Chief Moose may have been somewhat less of a magnet for protest than Chief Kroeker, but many of the shootings described in the independent report occurred on his watch. It seems to me that Moose, a cop's cop, did not change the institutional biases of the bureau. Derrick Foxworth, a 22-year veteran of the force who doubtlessly learned to fit in, is no more likely to do so. I don't mean that remark as a personal criticism of Foxworth, who struck me as an affable fellow the few times I've met him in off-duty venues. I just don't believe he is anymore likely to please critics of the Police Department for more than a few months than previous recent chiefs did. Portland will soon prove its perversity again.

9:04 PM