Bend Police Chief Jim Porter spoke to the Bend City Council Wednesday night about police reform. It’s worth listening to what he said about chokehold bans, qualified immunity for police and more.
Porter is understandably proud of his department’s progress. It has improved the way it responds to mental health calls. It’s made a substantial effort to improve recruitment. It has trained officers in de-escalation techniques. In short: meaningful, real positive changes.
Porter didn’t paint everything forcibly in his favor. He believes the department should expand its citizen advisory committee and do more training in de-escalation techniques and do more training in avoiding bias in policing.
He also discussed some reforms proposed in Oregon and nationally. Porter doesn’t want a complete ban on all neck holds. He distinguished between respiratory holds at the neck designed to cut off air and vascular holds which are designed to cut off blood, though he didn’t use those terms. Police call vascular holds carotid restraint, after the carotid artery.
Porter said twice in his career he was on the ground struggling with a suspect. Porter felt like he was fighting for his life. He could draw his gun. He could use a carotid restraint. He went for the restraint both times. If he had gone for his gun, the suspect might be dead. He said if a police officer cannot use a carotid restraint in those situations, it is setting them up to fail.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel recently expressed a similar concern when he was asked about use of such holds. Legislators need to ensure any bills aimed at banning chokeholds do not unintentionally cause more problems.
Liberal and conservative members in Congress have also called for an end to what’s called “qualified immunity.” That’s a doctrine created by the U.S. Supreme Court. It means even if a government official violated a person’s constitutional rights, the person or his or her family can’t sue for damages — unless it can be demonstrated that the government violated a right explicitly protected in a previous court ruling. The issue can become if the facts of the case line up with previous cases, not the violation of constitutional rights.
It’s easier to understand with an example. Even if a court convicts Derek Chauvin of the murder of George Floyd, his family members may not be able to sue for any monetary compensation unless their lawyers can find a case where a previous court explicitly found nearly identical conduct to what killed Floyd was unconstitutional.
Some conservatives don’t like qualified immunity, because it’s not in the Constitution. It didn’t exist in statute. Some liberals don’t like it because judges essentially made up a rule that denies people the ability to seek compensation when the government violates constitutional rights.
Porter said police are called on to make critical decisions in seconds. It would be unfair to judge an officer solely on a frame-by-frame review of what happened after the fact rather than what an officer had time or the opportunity to consider during the event. Qualified immunity helps protect officers from being tied up in court continuously with tort claims and other legal actions.
He’s correct, although courts have been clear that officers must be given latitude when making quick decisions in fluid situations. If qualified immunity did not exist, law enforcement and other government agencies would have an incredibly powerful incentive to improve hiring, training, and monitoring of employees. Bend might not need that. Some departments could.
You can watch Porter’s presentation and the council’s questions at the city’s website.