A screengrab from Salem's Community Police Review Board at its Jan. 12 meeting.

A Salem advisory board set up to handle citizen complaints against police hasn’t considered a case in more than five years.

The city Community Police Review Board was started more than 20 years ago, born out of a protest in Salem alleging unequal treatment of minorities by Salem officers.

Now in the wake of the racial justice protests last summer and a heightened interest in policing, board members are questioning the efficacy of the volunteer group, according to an examination by Salem Reporter.

The mission stated by the review board is to provide a citizen-driven process for reviewing complaints against the Salem Police Department and police officers. The board is to “provide the Salem community with information regarding the accountability of its police department in a way that builds trust and enhances communication between the police and all members of the community.”

The board is meant to review complaints against police when a person isn’t satisfied by the police department’s internal investigation of the matter.

Since the board’s inception, it has reviewed seven cases, according to Gretchen Bennett, the board’s city staff liaison.

She said the last completed case was in 2015. In that instance, a person was frustrated that police barred them from private property. Ultimately the board sided with the internal affairs finding that cleared the officer.

Bevin Clapper, vice chair of the board, said she doesn’t believe the board is providing any oversight of the Salem Police Department.

At the board’s July meeting, Clapper read into the record a letter expressing her frustration about the lack of information provided to the board.

“Unfortunately, I do not feel the department has been transparent about its operations or has the policy and oversight structures in place to ensure my experiences going about my business in Salem as a white woman are universal to all. I’m continually frustrated by the lack of transparency and the inability of the department to provide basic facts and statistics about their operations,” she said.

A performance auditor by profession, Clapper said she spent her first year on the board observing and not making any judgments. She got involved with the board in 2017 after she read an article following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that said white allies should get involved locally.

Clapper said the board isn’t provided information about policing trends, like how many arrests there were last year or how many complaints were filed against officers.

Bennett said there’s a difference in perspective among board members about the board’s role, which she said is to conduct case reviews.

Members include Clapper; Jodi Sherwood, a project manager for the Oregon Business Development Department and chair of the board; Erin Hull, a former teacher’s aide; John-Michael McDaniel, an operations lieutenant at Oregon State University; Steven Rice, a retired educator; and Michelle Teed, a lawyer.

During a policing performance audit now under way, Bennett said reviewers are exploring accountability and might advise them on the scope of the review board.

She said board members have had conversations about why it isn’t being used more but isn’t sure why. She said some complaints are resolved through conversation without rising to the complaint process. Bennett also said if a complainant chooses to pursue legal action against the police department, the review board suspends its work.

Scotty Nowning, president of the Salem Police Employees Union, said the department doesn’t get that many complaints in general and most are made internally.

“It just doesn’t happen that often. When officers screw up, you read about it in the paper,” he said.

He said having a board is good and it’s a positive that it’s not busy.

Nowning said he would be concerned if there wasn’t a mechanism for cases where a citizen isn’t satisfied with the result of an investigation. He said those cases should be reviewed by a board that’s educated on use-of-force policies, rather than an ad hoc group.

“We need to have something for those one-off cases where the person doesn’t feel satisfied,” Nowning said.

At the board’s Nov. 18 meeting, Clapper said she’s never considered a complaint while on the board. She knows there were 26 formal complaints against officers in 2018 but doesn’t know how many complaints there were in 2019 or 2020.

None of the 2018 complaints were brought to the board, according to city records.

“We’ve been given a good presentation of what the Salem Police Department does but I don’t believe that we are given the facts or the data to align whether that presentation aligns with reality,” she told the board.

During that meeting, Joshua Bushman, who used to work as a systems analyst for the city of Salem, said he helped implement a data system in police vehicles in 2019.

“I know what that program can do and what kind of information it captures. That data is there,” he told the board. “If you’re not getting it, someone’s not making it a priority. What you’re asking for isn’t a big ask either.”

Bennett said the data requests from the board came as the pandemic took hold and the police department didn’t have the staffing to produce data reports.  

“The department is committed to the idea, it just became a capacity issue,” she said.

Lt. Treven Upkes, Salem police spokesman, said the department was also changing its records management system and IT workers were busy migrating police data into the new system so police could write reports.

He said the lack of complaints going beyond the internal affairs process shows the department is doing a good job resolving them.

Upkes said the department sees a need for the board and isn’t trying to dodge transparency.

“A third-party review is always desired or respected. Nobody has any heartburn about it,” he said.

How it started

In March 1999, more than 150 Willamette University students marched from campus to City Hall to complain about police bias and the Salem Police Department’s internal investigation process, according to a Statesman Journal article.

In 2000, human rights groups asked the Salem City Council to create a panel that would be able to bypass the department’s internal investigations process and disciplinary practices to impose fines, suspend or fire officers.

Citizens at the time also said that people were apprehensive about going to the police to complain and when they did, they got the runaround.

The board met for the first time in 2003.

“I think it's important for the people in Salem to have someone to go to if they feel their issues are not resolved," said board member Linda Gertz, according to a Statesman Journal account at the time. "If you can only complain to the department you have a complaint with, you can feel as though you haven't been heard."

Exists if there’s a need

Sherwood, chair of the review board, said the board exists if there’s a need. If the need hasn’t come up in a while, perhaps the purpose of the board needs to be reformed, she said.

“Is the process working in the way it was intended is probably the question,” she said.

Sherwood said the board meets four times a year and educates board members on the procedures and policies of the Salem Police Department so they’re well versed should a complaint arise.

“It’s a hard one, because we exist for a purpose and if we’re serving that purpose we’re there and we’re available should somebody need us,” she said.

Sherwood said there was a complaint in 2017, but the community member rescinded it.

People can find out about the review board when filing a complaint with the police agency. The complaint form explains what the review board does.

In Eugene, the Civilian Review Board is considered a model and has been replicated in other cities.

The board meets about 10 times a year and reviews about one to two complaints at each meeting.

The key difference in Eugene’s board is the police auditor, an independent auditor responsible for receiving complaints, classifying them and turning them over to internal investigations.

Mark Gissiner, Eugene’s police auditor, said most of the people impacted in the complaints typically don’t have stable lifestyles. On some occasions, he said he'll end up bringing forward a complaint if something is discovered.

After 12 years at the job, he said there are at least 40 cases where he was the driving force behind the complaint, bringing a case up for review based on police reports and footage.

But Gissiner said if he were in Salem, he'd pursue a legal route rather than going through the citizen process.

“As a regular person if I had a complaint, I’d get a lawyer rather than complain,” he said.

Eugene’s board was created after a lawsuit cost the city more than $1 million because two officers were raping or coercing women into having sex while on the job.

Sherwood said comparing Salem to other cities is tough, because the scope of work and goals could be different.

Bennett said despite the small number of complaints that have gone before the board, it’s still an important mechanism for citizens dissatisfied with the police process.

“I’d hate to see it go away. I do think it’s an important valve. Otherwise the conversation would end with the internal affairs process,” she said.

For Clapper, she hopes more transparency will bring more participants to the meetings, especially community members of color which the complaint process was set up to protect.

“If we haven’t seen a single one in three years, it’s not that they’re just not getting to us,” Clapper said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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