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

As Salem considers the efficacy of its police review board, one solution may lie an hour’s drive south.

Racial justice protests last summer sparked a renewed public focus across the U.S. on holding police more publicly accountable for use of force, arrest decisions, and responses to protests.

Other cities have advanced farther than Salem in implementing oversight to increase transparency in policing. In Eugene, a model of oversight run by an independent police auditor has been in place for more than a decade.

Discussions of police reform emerged in Salem after an unprecedented summer in which Salem police officers used tear gas for the first time in the history of the Salem Police Department. A recent investigation by Salem Reporter found the civilian oversight board charged with reviewing complaints against police hasn’t considered one in five years.

In its 20-year history, Salem’s Community Police Review Board has reviewed seven complaints, causing some members to question the board’s role.

Salem is in the process of auditing its police agency to examine the ways local police officers interact with those in mental health crisis, people experiencing homelessness and Black, Indigenous and people of color.

With Portland overhauling its police oversight system, state Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, has proposed legislation to sidestep labor contracts that critics say have allowed police unions to avoid accountability for its members.

Salem’s volunteer review board has very little power. Its scope of work is limited to complaints that aren’t resolved by the police department’s internal affairs process.

Treven Upkes, Salem Police Department spokesman, said last year the department conducted 18 formal investigations.

It also conducted 119 informal inquiries, which involve a request for more information about how an incident was handled or an explanation of policies or procedures.

But in Oregon’s other large cities, an independent auditor is responsible for receiving, classifying and investigating complaints of police misconduct.

Eugene’s Civilian Review Board, which provides oversight for a department the same size as Salem’s, reviews about two cases at each of its meetings, which occur six to ten times a year. Complaints range from allegations of excessive force to high-speed pursuits or racial profiling.

Mark Gissiner, Eugene’s police auditor, is a city employee who reports to the Eugene City Council. 

The auditor’s office is intended to create an avenue for citizens to complain that’s independent of the police department.

“Who wants to go to the police department to complain about the police?” Gissiner said.  

In Salem that’s how the complaint process works now. People unsatisfied with police conduct can file a complaint with the Salem Police Department. If they’re unsatisfied with the results of that investigation, then they can take it to the Citizen Police Review Board.  

Eugene’s model isn’t cheap. There are four full-time employees in the auditor’s office, including a deputy auditor, administrative assistant, community engagement coordinator and translation specialist. They process about 400 cases a year at a cost of nearly $600,000 a year.  

Gissiner said there aren’t established best practices for police oversight. He said he can’t prove that the work of his office is responsible for Eugene’s liability and lawsuits decreasing significantly since he took the job more than a decade ago.  

“I can’t prove a negative. We haven’t had a big lawsuit in Eugene since I got here,” he said.

There has been no outside review of the operation either.

In a state like Oregon where public records laws can make obtaining police information difficult, an independent auditor provides another set of eyes.

But auditor models aren’t without complaint. Portland’s system has drawn criticism because it can’t investigate shootings involving officers or cases in which people die in police custody, can’t make public its findings and has no say in the discipline of officers found to have committed infractions, according to The Oregonian.

Eugene's police auditor, who retired last week. (Courtesy/ KLCC)

What communities want

Michael Hames-García, a professor at the University of Oregon and member of Eugene’s review board, is researching what people want when they demand community oversight and what ends up being implemented.

“Communities want an end to corruption, unjustified violence and racial profiling,” he said. “The transparency is really the big gain for community members. Accountability and justice are harder to come by.”

For his research, he looked at community oversight of law enforcement in British Columbia, Los Angeles County and Eugene.

Hames-Garcia said cities don’t create review boards voluntarily.

“In almost every case I can think of, it’s been shoved down a city’s throat,” he said.

Hames-Garcia said Eugene’s system is seen as a model. Cities like New York, Denver, San Jose, New Orleans and Los Angeles have police auditors too.

“In Eugene, we have the auditor’s office right downtown by the bus mall. People can go to auditor’s office or call,” he said. “The auditor isn’t an advocate for the complainant, but they are someone who isn’t a police officer. It makes a lot of difference. It takes away a lot of the fear.”

He said the number of complaints often relates more with people’s trust in the complaint process than the number of actual incidents.

But he said what communities are often hoping for when they talk about police accountability is not what they’re going to get.

“Procedural processes are so tangled with labor law, public records laws, due process and balance of evidence,” Hames-Garcia said.

In Eugene and Portland, the auditor’s decisions are advisory to the police chief, who remains in charge of discipline.

Gissiner said police agency executives or city managers need to be the ones disciplining officers, rather than the outside auditor so change can happen from within the organization.

Gissiner can initiate complaints himself, sometimes basing an allegation of misconduct on police reports and footage.

For example, Gissiner’s office initiated an investigation about a man who was beaten by an officer at the Eugene jail. 

The officer was fired.

“We’re now the guardian of these use-of-force cases because we look at them all the time,” Gissiner said.

He participates in use-of-force reviews, sitting in on officer interviews and providing recommendations that emerge from his review.

The most stark example of the disparity between Salem and other cities is evident in use-of-force complaints that resulted from the racial justice protests over the summer. If Gissiner hears of an example of excessive force, he will investigate it even if a citizen doesn’t bring a complaint.  

In Salem, a woman filed a lawsuit seeking to change Salem Police Department practices after she was shot in the face with a rubber bullet and suffered eye damage, according to the federal suit.

Salem’s review board didn’t consider the case, but the Eugene board would examine such an allegation.

While Salem’s board hasn’t considered a case in years, Salem’s Police Union president Scotty Nowning told Salem Reporter a system should leave citizens satisfied with the result of an investigation.

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

Gissiner said his office, the review board and internal affairs staff are looking at every minute of footage from the protests last summer and is still initiating complaints against officers based on that review.  

He noted that some victims of police abuse don’t have stable lifestyles and often have mental illnesses, meaning they often won’t file a complaint.

Gissiner said the number of complaints Salem’s board has reviewed “is absurd.”

He said review boards “have to be impactful or they’re just worthless.” 

That’s echoed by National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement which said on its website, “Civilian oversight bodies must be given real power or else they risk being performative political statements with no actual ‘teeth’ or power.”

Liana Perez, director of operations for that association, said each community needs to adapt civilian review to meet the needs of the community. She said that includes addressing key questions: Are they accountable? Are they transparent? Can they carry out their mandates with little interference?

Perez’s nonprofit identifies components for meaningful civilian oversight. The task should go beyond reviewing misconduct complaints to include analyzing use-of-force and traffic stop patterns and reviewing policies to address systemic issues.

One pitfall to avoid, according to the national association, is providing only reviews of information the police provide and leaving out the ability to independently investigate complaints.

“Localities should be able to give these bodies subpoena power to compel the production of documents and witnesses, allowing them to investigate, gather, analyze, and review information; produce public reports; and to make informed recommendations related to policing issues of significant public interest,” the association advises. “Localities should also be able to empower these bodies to make the final decisions on disciplining officers, adjudicating use of force, recruiting practices, and creating policies.”

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

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