By CARLI BROSSEAU and REBECCA WOOLINGTON
The superintendent of Oregon State Police said this week some of the officers featured in The Oregonian/OregonLive's investigation "Fired, But Fit for Duty" had done things that should have barred them from police work permanently.
"There's no defending the indefensible," said Travis Hampton, who is a member of the board that oversees public safety officers in the state.
Hampton is one police leader who has reacted strongly to "Fired, But Fit for Duty."
The newsroom's investigation examined the work of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, which certifies police officers in Oregon and has the authority to take away their certifications for misconduct.
The newsroom looked at all cases state regulators closed from 2013 through 2016 and found they failed to sideline dozens of fired officers who had accumulated a record of inept police work, or worse.
Examples included officers fired after punching a handcuffed suspect, driving 150 miles per hour during a pursuit over a two-lane bridge, showing up to work drunk, sleeping on duty and leaving a patrol district unattended to visit a love interest near the county jail 17 miles away.
Regulators won't open a decertification case unless an officer has been arrested or has left a job in connection with an investigation or a settlement agreement. They hardly ever perform their own investigations, relying instead on documents from local agencies.
Daryl Turner, the president of Portland's police union, said the officers he represents are under enough layers of oversight.
"The system in place is a solid system," Turner said. "I believe it works well."
Within hours of the investigation publishing online, Turner sent out a press release saying the article was "sensationalism" with the "overarching premise that DPSST is meant to act as some sort of super-employer."
He sent the statement on behalf of the Oregon Coalition of Police & Sheriffs, an organization that does lobbying and public relations for line officers at some of the state's largest agencies.
Hampton, the superintendent of state police, said he shared The Oregonian/OregonLive's investigation with his command staff because it spotlighted system failures and he hoped to spark a discussion about how they could avoid those problems in the future.
"I don't think you can set the bar high enough in our profession," Hampton said.
Eriks Gabliks, the director of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, signaled that he is open to change.
"I believe our discussions and work show that our organization, our Board, and our constituents are not wed to the way we have always done things," Gabliks wrote in an email.
Gabliks said he is aware of important national discussions about policing, but his agency wasn't set up to regulate excessive force.
"Some of the proposals and concepts discussed in your article would significantly change the work and role of DPSST and our Board," Gabliks wrote. "These suggestions would require legislative action which could result in a need for more resources."
Springfield Lt. Scott McKee said allocating more resources to state regulators would be helpful because local investigations into police misconduct are laden with conflicts of interest.
As a sergeant with the Eugene Police Department, McKee handled a case described in "Fired, But Fit for Duty." He criminally investigated Officer Charles Caruso after he threw Shaymond Michelson to the ground and punched him six times in the face. McKee was troubled by the state's decision to not take action against Caruso and by statements from regulators that they won't act on excessive force without a criminal conviction.
The state should also regulate officer competence, McKee said, because the public does not get to choose police officers the way they can choose people in other regulated professions, such as doctors.
"When you push the buttons for the police, you get who you get," he said.
Because the state certifies officers based on competency, it makes sense to McKee that regulators could find a way to identify incompetence and decertify for it.
"No matter where you work in the state, the expectation for competency should be the same," McKee said. "If a police officer demonstrates that they're incompetent in Portland, you don't just move them to Coburg, Oregon, for instance, and decide that they'll be OK there. If they're not competent, they're not competent."
An academic who has been studying police decertification for 30 years, Roger Goldman of the Saint Louis University School of Law, said The Oregonian/OregonLive's investigation has inspired further research.
The newspaper's findings underscored the importance of looking beyond state statutes and regulations to how regulators actually carry out their job, he said.
A grassroots organization of Oregon law enforcement officers said in a statement that The Oregonian/OregonLive had "highlighted some inconsistencies and gaps in the systems in place for holding law enforcement officers to a professional standard in Oregon."
The group goes by the acronym PPROLEA, for Police Professionals for Law Enforcement Accountability, and is led by Clackamas County Sgt. Matt Swanson, who blew the whistle on a detective he supervised for bungling sex crimes cases. Swanson has alleged the sheriff's office retaliated against him after he pushed for the detective to be investigated.
Swanson has called on the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to take a more aggressive role in investigating police officers, including suggesting that the state create an inspector general arm for the department. He's also asked the state to provide better protections to officers who face retaliation for reporting misconduct.
"One of the items which is important to us," Swanson's group said in a statement, "is that there be a governmental authority willing, equipped and able to step in when police agencies fail to do so."
The office of Gov. Kate Brown, who appoints the department's director and board members, did not respond to requests for comment.
-- Carli Brosseau & Rebecca Woolington