Audit: Ore. state public safety is too complaisant with local police agencies' internal investigations

“As a result, there is a risk that some conduct worthy of decertification goes undetected or unaddressed,” according to the report

By Maxine Bernstein

SALEM, Ore. — The state public safety agency that certifies police officers gives too much deference to local police agencies to hold officers accountable for excessive force or other misconduct, a state audit found.

“As a result, there is a risk that some conduct worthy of decertification goes undetected or unaddressed,” according to the audit released Wednesday.

The Secretary of State’s Audit Division conducted the review in spring. The findings are similar to those from The Oregonian/OregonLive’s “Fired but Fit for Duty” investigation in 2017 that showed state regulators took no action to sideline dozens of officers fired for chronically inept police work or worse. The department let fired officers remain eligible to work even after they accumulated records of brutality, recklessness, shoddy investigations and anger management problems.

The state audit said narrowly defined state administrative rules hinder the ability of the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to revoke an officer’s certification.

The department is responsible for regulating all public safety professionals in Oregon, including city, county, state and tribal police officers and city and county corrections officers. Newly hired police officers must attend a four-month basic academy at the department and complete a field training manual at their local agency to attain their law enforcement certifications. Officers who fail to meet moral fitness standards may face decertification. The department can revoke an officer’s certification for three years to life.

The audit pointed out that excessive force, deadly force and officer incompetency don’t automatically trigger a review of an officer’s certification by the state department. The agency considers an officer’s incompetence something for chiefs and sheriffs to deal with, not state regulators.

The department won’t decertify officers for brutality unless they’re convicted of a crime, and such prosecutions are extremely rare.

For example, the audit noted that only one officer’s actions may have met the standard for a certification review among 57 Portland Police Bureau officer-involved shootings and incidents of in-custody deaths from 2004 to 2018.

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The department will review an officer’s police certification if they’re fired or if they resigned or retired while under investigation, but it often relies on a local police department’s investigation.

“Although DPSST has the statutory authority to conduct its own investigations into moral fitness violations, the agency has historically not done so,” the audit said. “Certain instances wherein local investigations are not completed hinders the agency’s ability to make an informed decision on decertification. This may occur for multiple reasons, such as an officer resigning prior to the completion of an investigation or an agency not having enough financial and personnel resources once an officer has left.”

There are about 208 separate law enforcement agencies in Oregon, according to the public safety agency. The public safety department has a $72 million biennial budget for fiscal 2021-23 with a staff of 160.

Andrew Love, the audit manager, said more staffing would be needed for the agency to do its own investigations.

“They do have the authority to conduct their own investigations, and it probably would be in the best interest of the state for them to conduct those especially those that make the public view,” he said.

The audit also found:

— While the state agency’s basic police training academy has improved, it has little oversight over the subsequent field training that each local police agency provides to the recruits once they return to their departments and start responding to calls for service.

Field training officers in each police department vary in experience and training, and state administrative rules don’t require field training officers to receive any standard training, the audit found.

— The department’s board and police policy committee lack clear conflict-of-interest guidelines for members serving on them who either recommend or make the final ruling on whether to revoke or maintain an officer’s certification.

Though a member is encouraged to disclose the nature of a conflict, it’s not necessary under current rules. Even if they disclose a conflict, the members may still be allowed to participate in discussions and recommendations after simply stating their ability to remain unbiased, the report said.

The majority of the members on both the board and policy committee are from the public safety disciplines they regulate, the audit noted.

— Inadequate staffing and technology has hampered the public safety agency’s ability to provide effective training.

Due to the agency’s heavy reliance on part-time and volunteer staff and limited administrative staff, the basic police academy struggles to provide core training on skills, such as use-of-force scenarios, defensive tactics, firearms training and emergency vehicle operations, the audit said.

The public safety agency, for example, has a current practice of using students as role players in the defensive tactics unit, which it says “was born out of necessity.”

“Paid staff were once used as role players for the defensive tactics classes, until one day when the scheduled instructors did not show up. Instead of canceling class, the coordinator instructed the students to act as role players,” according to the auditors.

On the technology front, the agency lacks the ability to accept electronic signatures, which complicates accepting and receiving forms electronically.

“This reliance on paper documents results in inefficient processes and delays in both receiving and communicating important information,” the audit said.

— The agency needs to diversify its staff and improve its racial and ethnic demographic makeup.

— The agency’s investigators lack access to the FBI National Crime Information Center Data because the department isn’t considered a law enforcement agency. This bars investigators from immediately finding out if people applying for police certification have criminal records out of state.

— The state lacks data on police use of excessive force.

“When auditors attempted to review data on incidences of excessive force and compare the data to the state agency’s professional standards’ cases, they found the state of Oregon lacks the data to make this comparison,” the report said.

— The agency should offer regular regional trainings once recruits graduate from basic academy and progress through their careers.

That would require an increase in staffing and resources for its regional training program. The regional training should include guidelines for how local agencies conduct internal investigations into their officers.

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Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said the audit outlines key steps the public safety department and its law enforcement partners “must take to improve performance and build public trust.”

Jerry Granderson, executive director of the department, agreed that it needs more staff and said the agency will request funding for more workers and better technology.

“The Department agrees that additional resources are needed to further advance its mission and the legislative intent of the criminal justice reform bills,” he wrote in response. “DPSST is continually evaluating our workforce to assess staffing levels and increase the overall diversity of the workforce in order to adequately deliver the department’s mission. DPSST will evaluate program needs and pursue necessary resources through the agency requested budget process.”

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