From Slandergate, many lessons

It's been a little more than a week since the public finally got to see at least some of the official police findings on the outrageous defamation of Portland city commissioner Jo Ann "With the Bullhorn" Hardesty by the then-head of the police union and other city police officers. The latest stories regarding the incident, which took place way back in early March, teach us a lot about how things work, and don't work, in Portland. It might be a good idea to break the various lessons out one at a time.

The first, of course, is that when it comes to disclosing public documents, the folks at City Hall, particularly the arrogant obstructionists in the city attorney's office, are absolute scoundrels. Only a fool would think it a coincidence that the investigative report, which the local media had been loudly demanding for months, got released on the Thursday morning before the New Year's weekend, which for many folks lasted four days. That was deliberate. 

And deliberate on whose part? There are a number of hands involved in handling public records requests, and probably most or all of them were in on the timing on this one. Aside from the city attorney's office, there are the police chief's office, the mayor (as police commissioner), and the county district attorney, who rules on what is and isn't confidential. They all probably laughed as they dumped the story during the week between Christmas and New Year's. Shame on every single one of them for their apparent lack of good faith.

Turning to the spicy details of the police misconduct, we see that not one but three cops all gleefully circulated what turned out to be a false accusation of hit-and-run driving against Hardesty. In addition to the disgraced union chief, Brian Hunzeker, who leaked it to the Oregonian, an officer named Kerri Ottoman shared it with Gabriel Johnson, a co-founder of the Coalition to Save Portland, which has been described as a political action committee linked to the city’s police union. That leak apparently wound up on Facebook. And a third officer, Ken Le, was found to have forwarded the information to a friend who works as an emergency dispatcher, perhaps just as juicy office gossip.

Interestingly, Hardesty is suing only Hunzeker and Ottoman, at least so far, along with the union and the city. Apparently she's decided not to pursue Le, the "Coalition," or the various media outlets who repeated the false accusations. No doubt there is some strategy behind that choice, although don't ask me, I'm not a litigator.

A particularly appalling aspect of all this is that none of the three officers has been disciplined, although Hunzeker did resign from the union presidency and for a while there seemed to have been off his job as a motorcycle cop. Supposedly the utter lack of disciplinary action is because the "investigation" is "continuing."

It was unclear what, if any, disciplinary action Hunzeker, Ottoman or Le could face. The internal affairs investigation went before the city’s Police Review Board in October. Once the investigation is complete, that panel will forward the information to the chief, in consultation with Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as the city’s police commissioner. They will have 10 days to make a final decision on the case, according to city policy.

Sgt. Kevin Allen, a police bureau spokesperson, said that despite the release of the letter, the internal affairs investigation is ongoing and no discipline has been handed down.

It's been 10 long months. Nothing on the up-and-up could possibly be taking so long. You know what they say about justice delayed. And they wonder why so many people distrust the police.

Alas, dragged-out investigations that let bad cops get away with atrocious misconduct are commonplace. Here's a sad story of a police killing in Redmond, Washington, where the "investigation" never seems to end, while the homicidal cops go on like nothing happened. 

“She called them for help,” said an emotional Michael Thomas, Churna’s father, as he sat at the dining room table in his home in Port Orchard. “And they killed her for it. This is a nightmare for us. Where is the justice for my daughter?”...

While any father would feel that way in his position, Thomas’ opinion carries a certain authority — he’s a retired Michigan State Police commander who in a distinguished 32-year career investigated or oversaw investigations into dozens of police shootings and homicides himself.

At least in the Hardesty case, nobody died.

The Portland bad cop story also teaches an important lesson about the local media. You will notice that the Oregonian article on the investigation report was written by Kale Williams, and not by the O's police reporter, Maxine Bernstein. This is probably because Bernstein herself became part of the story – a place where no reporter ever wants to find herself.

As The Oregonian/OregonLive has previously reported, reporter Maxine Bernstein received multiple tips that Hardesty was named as a suspect in a non-emergency call to police.

After receiving the tips, Bernstein immediately reached out to Hardesty, then verified with the Police Bureau and the mayor’s office that, in fact, Hardesty was under investigation in the alleged hit-and-run. Bernstein then contacted Hardesty through her office again, obtained the commissioner’s statement denying involvement and included it in her article, published about 11 a.m. on March 4. The Oregonian/OregonLive article was updated throughout the day, including an update to remove an erroneous reference to the victim reporting the license plate of the hit-and-run car.

And from whom do you think the "multiple tips" came, including the lie about the license plate number? Why, cops, of course. Police reporters and police can be awfully chummy at times. They have to be; they need each other. For the reporters, it's an awful conflict. They can't alienate the cops, because if they do, the cops won't talk to them. If the relationship gets too adversarial, the police can make the reporter's life miserable, if not impossible.

That's the reality every single day. And because of it, it's a bad idea to have the regular police reporter covering matters relating to police misconduct and discipline. Or the police union contract, for that matter. Someone else should be assigned to those topics, but in these days of short-staffed newsrooms, it's rarely done. And so while Bernstein likely won't be reporting on Slandergate, she's back on the beat, and probably handling anything else having to do with Portland police, once again. And that includes the union contract.

Speaking of which, why in the name of God don't we know more about where that stands? The contract expired last June 30. Apparently it's sitting in the hands of some faceless, unaccountable arbitrator or mediator or what have you. But what are the parties' positions? What was the city's last offer? The union's? Why doesn't the public have the faintest clue? We don't even know the arbitrator's name – the person who holds the future of the city in his or her hands. You look at the wreckage of Portland, and it's all because of the cops, in one way or another. And yet the police employment contract is drafted in secret. It's beyond absurd.

Anyway, getting back to Hardesty, it will be interesting to see where she goes with her lawsuit. Surely she'll keep it open while she desperately tries to get re-elected. Nothing fits her political persona better than being a victim of discrimination. Poor, poor, downtrodden Jo Ann Hardesty. One of the cops has reportedly admitted that he trashed her in retaliation for her politics. But she wants race in the conversation, too. It's her ace in the hole.

To me the question of the day is whether she'll make it through the primary in May. She may get a six-figure damage check at some point, but her biweekly paychecks as city commissioner are down to the last 26.