Q&A: Ross Caldwell, Independent Police Review in Portland

Civic Affairs

IPR is part of the City Auditor's office

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland Police Officer Cory Budworth was charged with a misdemeanor earlier this week for an incident during a riot in August 2020. But there is another, non-criminal investigation underway from the Independent Police Review.

Ross Caldwell, the director of the IPR, spoke with KOIN 6 News about what the agency does, how it works, his thoughts on police body cameras and the resignation of officers from the PPB’s Rapid Response Team.

He did not talk in detail about the Budworth case because it is an ongoing investigation.

The Independent Police Review is a police oversight agency, and is independent and autonomous from the Portland Police Bureau. It is part of the City Auditor’s Office.

The Budworth investigation, he said, has been on hold for several months as the criminal investigation was underway.

This interview is lightly edited for length and clarity.

KOIN 6 News reporter Jenny Young: Why did you have to put it on hold?

Ross Caldwell, the director of the Independent Police Review in Portland, June 17, 2021 (KOIN)

Ross Caldwell: We knew we had to put it on hold when it was referred for criminal investigation relatively early on. We can do some preliminary things kind of at the same time. There is, there’s some things that can be done at the same time, but if someone is being investigated for a crime they have a right, a constitutional right, obviously not to speak to law enforcement, they don’t have to say something that might harm them. So they can decide not to, not to make a statement, but as an employee of the Portland Police Bureau, officers do have to speak to us. This is not a criminal investigation, this is an administrative investigation, which means, it’s basically did this officer violate the rules that police are operating under. And so we can have sanctions and punishment at work, which is separate and not connected to the criminal prosecution, but obviously, you know, getting in trouble for committing a crime is a lot more serious and so we kind of step back while the criminal cases unfolding and wait for that to happen and then go forward

JY: Will the outcome of the criminal investigation impact your investigation? If so, how?

RC: It’s possible that it could, if an officer is convicted breaking the law, if they’re convicted of a crime, that could potentially influence what happens with our case. And so that’s part of the other reason that we kind of take a step back and wait to see what’s happening with the case. You know, there are things that get referred for criminal investigation regularly where the district attorney decides there wasn’t a crime committed here. And so we pick up our case and move again. So, it could potentially affect our case, but we just need to be really careful to make sure that we don’t kind of cross over into each other’s worlds and effect that criminal investigation in any way that would be inappropriate.

JY: Where were you in the investigation when you put it on hold?

RC: We were in the early stages. I can’t, we can’t talk too much about our investigations. Our cases due to some clause in the police union’s contract with the city and some state statutes they don’t often get publicly released. Although I anticipate that this one, because it’s got so much public attention may be able to be publicly released. That’s something that’ll have to be determined by the city attorney’s office or potentially the district attorney’s office, depending on which route it takes

JY: Are you able to tell me what the early stage looks like?

RC: The first thing that we do, if we get a complaint, is we try to gather any physical evidence, which would be in this case video. This case came in a little bit differently in that we saw the video and didn’t know who the people in the video were. So we had a video, but we didn’t know who the woman in the video was until much later. So, we would want to interview everybody involved and interview any witnesses. And so we kind of tracked down any physical evidence that we can find. We try to find any other videos out there. And then we make a list of all the people we want to talk to and then we would, we would start with those interviews.

JY: Did you find any other videos?

RC: I don’t think we have any other videos of this one, but I can’t talk too much about our investigation cause it’s still on.

JY: When you say the video wasn’t brought to you, someone saw it do mean someone from the city or your team saw it first? Can you explain that further?

RC: I think our investigators, this is quite a while ago now, but I think, I believe, our investigators found this on social media during the ongoing protests. We were always kind of trying to check social media for any videos that showed Portland police officers engaged in anything that could be misconduct. Our normal system works so that people call us or email us or fill out a form online or come to our door at City Hall and make a complaint. So usually we start with a complaint and we know who the complainant is and then we have to figure out, OK, who was the officer that was involved in this situation? We had a video of the incident, but we didn’t know who the complainant was. So there were a lot of those that came out of the protests that you know, they kind of pose some additional difficulty for us in trying to figure out how to investigate these because ultimately you want witnesses and videos. Videos are great, but often you know, the video doesn’t show the whole thing sometimes. … And we really want every video we can find. And then we want to be able to speak to the people that were there obviously, and get their take on what happened. So, this would all be a lot easier if we had body cameras for police officers. And that’s something that I really hope Portland will move towards in the future. You know, if we’ve learned anything from the protests, it’s that, for police accountability to really work effectively, we really need body cameras.

JY: Why do you think Portland police don’t have body cameras?

RC: There was a pilot for body cameras and there was some money set aside for that a while ago. And I know that some of the people at the Department of Justice who are part of the settlement agreement with the city have advocated for that. We at Independent Police Review, we think it’s really important, that it’s an important step. I think it’s become kind of a politicized issue and ultimately City Council would need to find the money for the body cameras. And so I think, it’s not just the body cameras. You also have to figure out how to store all that video and you have to figure out rules around who gets to see the video. Do officers get to see the video in the instance of an officer involved shooting or something like that? Do the officers get to see the video before they make a statement? So there’s a lot of things that need to be figured out, but there’s a lot of places around the US that have made this move and so I hope that we get there and it’s a complicated, and I think a pretty political issue, but I hope we get there.

JY: What do you think when you look at a department in a small rural community that has body cameras, but a large city like Portland doesn’t?

RC: I think it’s embarrassing. I think it means that we’re settling for less information. And in instances like this, I mean, everybody’s seen that video now of the officer that was indicted yesterday (June 16) and some of these other incidents we could potentially have so much more evidence but we have chosen not to, it seems like willful blindness to me.

JY: What are the ramifications of not having that evidence and not having that information?

RC: A lot harder for us to hold police accountable, you know, with body cameras, you know which officer the video is coming from, and so a lot of these videos during the protests, because they’re taken at night and there are fireworks and kind of lasers shining around, and when police are caught making contact with community members or with protestors, a lot of times you can kind of see somebody rushing up and then the video kind of goes all over the place and the rest of it is of somebody’s feet. And so those aren’t really all that helpful to us. We can tell something happened, but we have to be able to prove that something happened. So having something that’s held in somebody’s hands sometimes like in this instance you have video that is potentially very, very useful, but a lot of times, you just can’t really prove anything with that video. And so if we had body cameras, not only would we be able to identify officers better and see if they’re reporting force the way that they should, but we’d really just have a lot more evidence and a lot more potential eyes on any given situation.

JY: What do you think when you watched the video (of the Budworth incident)?

A screen grab from a Twitter video shows PPB Officer Cory Budworth use a baton on Terri Jacobs, August 18, 2020 (Courtesy: John The Lefty)

RC: It’s terrible. I mean, I think it’s very, it’s very, very concerning, you know it’s difficult to watch. I watch a lot of videos as part of my job as do our investigators and, you know, it’s a shocking thing to see. Yeah, not kind of prejudging where we go with our investigation, but we saw that video and we automatically opened up a case and that’s, you know, what you do when you see something like that.

JY: What’s your reaction to the Portland Police Association saying that PPB’s own experts reviewed his actions and found them reasonable, permissible, and in accordance with his training?

RC: I’m not sure exactly what PPA is talking about in saying that. This investigation is not complete. Like I said, it’s been on hold pending the criminal investigation, so it will now be moving forward, but no, it is certainly not complete and no determination has been made.

JY: Have you taken a statement from the officer Budworth?

RC: Nope. We haven’t got that far yet. This is something that’s been put on hold until we know what’s happening with the criminal case. … We have 14 people working at independent police review about half of them are investigators, administrative investigators. So what we’re doing is we’re comparing the behavior of Portland Police Bureau members to the directives, which are the rules by which they operate.

JY: In a city where a lot of people have loudly said ‘we don’t like police’ and a City Council that has defunded police, how do you tell the people of this city, how do you ensure them that your team is unbiased?

RC: Well I know a big part is that we don’t have the same boss that the police bureau has. Ultimately the police bureau reports to the chief and then to the mayor, as the police commissioner. We are under the auditor, who’s an independently elected city official and that is where a lot of the accountability and kind of government transparency stuff goes. Unfortunately our work does not get released to the public. And like I said, that’s mainly because of the things that are in the Portland Police Association contract with the city and then a couple of state statutes that make it difficult to release our work. So I think there’s a lot of progress that could be made about showing our work publicly so that people would have more faith in it. But, you know, those are things that the legislature and the city will have to determine the city has to negotiate that contract with the police union and we’ll see what they come up with. They’re negotiating a contract right now.

JY: What are your overall thoughts on the members of RRT resigning?

RC: I mean, I can’t say I’m surprised. I think that this has been kind of lurking as a possibility for quite a while.

JY: Why?

RC: Well, I think there’s, you know, I mean, obviously it’s a, it’s a difficult job and I think when the protests went on as long as they did and I think that the way the police handled the protests you know it put the officers in a very difficult spot. I think there was a ton of force used and that if the protests were a fire, I think some of the response by the police bureau was kind of equivalent to trying to put the fire out with gasoline. And I think that just inflamed things and it got more difficult. I think it got more difficult for those officers to work in that situation. So, I’m a little surprised that they’ve all hung in as long as they have. But you know, I think this is something that had been kind of talked about as a potential thing or that had thought, well, maybe it was a possibility to happen someday. So it’s not, it’s not completely shocking, but it’ll be interesting to see what the police bureau does going forward.

… I think isn’t shocking when you look at the numbers of people that are leaving the Portland Police Bureau. So there’s a lot of people leaving the, leaving the police bureau. And I think it was kind of a matter of time before people that are still in the police bureau said that they didn’t want to do this, this kind of work anymore. So where the city goes from here, how they get that training they potentially might need to get that done pretty quickly is going to be an important thing to keep an eye on.

JY: What do you think about when you think about so many officers are resigning from the bureau? What do you think when you think about the future of PPB?

RC: You know, I think in my position it’s important to remain neutral. I should not be somebody who wants to fire a bunch of police officers because I don’t like police officers. And I also shouldn’t be somebody who wants to give them a pass when they break the rules. So I think myself and the other people that work at Independent Police Review, we really try to come at this from a neutral place, which can be challenging because everybody’s got feelings and I think there’s a lot of good questions about the future of the police bureau and community safety in Portland. We have a lot of shootings. We had a lot of traffic fatalities. We have a lot of people leaving the police bureau. We clearly need to build alternatives to policing.

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