By CARLI BROSSEAU and REBECCA WOOLINGTON
Shaymond Michelson knew a night of drinking had gone badly when he woke up in a jail cell with a face so swollen he had a hard time talking. A police officer wrote in a report he hadn’t followed orders. A Navy vet, Michelson trusted that he deserved what he got.
But weeks later, a police sergeant came to his home carrying a laptop. He opened it on the kitchen table. Michelson and his fiancee huddled around to watch a silent video recorded at the jail’s entrance. The sergeant pressed play.
The video shows Michelson walking toward the door, handcuffed and swaying. He stops. The officer behind him is talking, nodding sharply. Then the officer shoves him. He lurches forward and plants his feet. The officer grabs his neck and throws him to his back on the concrete floor. The officer pins him there, a shin over his chest and throat. A jail deputy arrives, and Michelson kicks toward the deputy’s head. The deputy catches his foot and starts to roll him over. The officer punches him in the face. Then again and again and again and again and again.
Michelson said watching the video was surreal. He replayed it over and over. His fiancee had to walk away.
He asked Scott McKee, the sergeant who brought the video, whether the arresting officer was allowed to do things like that. The sergeant said no.
“It looked like a pro wrestling move,” said McKee, who criminally investigated the officer’s actions. “And the guy’s handcuffed. There’s no regard for how he lands. There’s none.”
Michelson wanted Officer Charles Caruso to be held accountable. He told the city of Eugene he planned to sue. He didn’t have to. Eugene paid out $100,000 and fired the officer.
But Caruso escaped without criminal charges. And the people who held the power to take his badge for good chose to do nothing.
The Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training wins national praise for holding police officers accountable for bad behavior. Academics, journalists and regulators in other states describe the department as a model.
But an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive found that state regulators took no action to sideline dozens of officers fired for chronically inept police work. Or worse.
The department let fired officers remain eligible to work even after they accumulated records of brutality, recklessness, shoddy investigations and anger management problems.
Regulators quietly closed one case after an officer was fired for using excessive force on two handcuffed suspects and for driving 120 mph, at night, through a construction zone. They closed the case of another fired officer whose disciplinary records show he botched investigations, refused to finish police reports, failed to show up at court proceedings, abused sick time and earned a reputation for being volatile and rude.
Regulators have chosen to shy away from some of the public’s greatest concerns about policing, interviews with agency officials show.
They don’t think it’s their job to punish officers for brutality.
They don’t think it’s their job to punish officers for incompetence.
They don’t think it’s their job to even contemplate punishing officers who haven’t been convicted of a crime or who haven’t lost their jobs.
They hardly ever perform their own investigations. The department employs only two investigators for the more than 10,000 police officers, corrections officers, dispatchers and parole and probation officers in the state. The investigators rely on documents that employers send them and almost never follow up once those documents arrive. Some police departments do a better job of investigating their own than others. As a result, officers are not held to the same standard across the state.
Like doctors, lawyers and teachers, police officers must receive the state’s blessing to work in Oregon. The department certifies officers who have completed minimum training, and it has the authority to take away their certifications for any misconduct afterward. An officer decertified in Oregon could get certified elsewhere, but police departments in other states can see the red flag if they look for it.
State certifying agencies could be the vanguard of police accountability in an era when many police departments, prosecutors and the U.S. Justice Department show little appetite for second-guessing cops.
The Oregonian/OregonLive wanted to know how the state’s reputation as a national leader compared to reality.
Reporters analyzed three databases and more than 10,000 pages of documents from the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. The department didn’t turn the records over easily. Reporters successfully appealed to the state Attorney General’s Office 10 times to force access to documents and data.
Among the findings:
- The department considers incompetence something for chiefs and sheriffs to deal with, not state regulators. The department’s staff closed cases when officers were fired after sleeping on duty, repeatedly failing to seize or log evidence, or showing up to work drunk. They closed the books on a Portland crime scene investigator, even though the city’s Police Bureau found he refused to go to a homicide scene to process evidence with other investigators and, separately, attended a birthday party outside the city while on the clock.
- The department won’t decertify officers for brutality unless they are criminally convicted. People filed hundreds of complaints alleging excessive force by Oregon officers from 2013 through 2016. But of the officers who came before regulators during the period, only one was convicted for it. Even a conviction won’t bar an officer from service permanently. Regulators recently allowed a decertified Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy to re-apply for police work eight years after he was convicted for choking a teenager while on duty.
- Patterns of bad behavior can go unknown or unpunished, even when an officer’s record is exceptionally lengthy. A Clatsop County deputy was allowed to keep his certification despite a history thousands of pages long that featured write-ups for extremely fast driving, unsettling comments and sloppy evidence practices. The deputy’s troubles, according to the county’s attorney, included at least seven on-duty crashes, nine formal reprimands and 62 memos criticizing his attitude and performance.
Oregon does well in national comparisons for stripping problem officers of their powers. In 2015, Oregon ranked 11th in the rate of officers who were decertified, a survey by Seattle University professor Matthew Hickman showed.
The bar is low. Oregon routinely decertifies officers when they’ve committed a crime and punishes many even without a criminal conviction. Some states act only on felonies. A few have no mechanism at all for ousting bad officers.
The national rankings say nothing about the cases that states choose to drop.
Records show that Oregon regulators took no action in about half of the 255 cases that they closed from 2013 through 2016 involving certified police officers. Most of those cases ended quietly.
More than 100 cases against officers slid back into the filing drawer. Each was labeled “administrative closure.” Cases with this designation are all but invisible to outsiders, almost never reviewed in a public meeting.
Although state law requires department officials to issue a report after any investigation, the reports they write for administrative closures tend to offer few details. A handwritten explanation on one reads, in its entirety, “Performance issues only.”
Because the department wanted thousands of dollars to provide case files underlying these cryptic conclusions, the newsroom focused its records requests on 40 officers who stayed certified after being fired. State law says the department must decertify anyone fired for cause. Yet the department interprets “for cause” so narrowly that 57 percent of fired officers stayed eligible to carry a gun and a badge elsewhere in Oregon.
The agency’s records showed serious concerns prompted many of the firings. For example, some fired officers who stayed certified were feared to be a risk of workplace violence. One officer’s supervisor said he started wearing a ballistic vest because he feared the officer was unstable.
Oregon revokes the credentials of less than 1 percent of the state’s 6,300 officers each year. The department’s director, Eriks Gabliks, said he’s comfortable with that number.
“Most of the men and women that put on a uniform and put on a badge do the right thing every day for the right reasons, serving their communities,” he said. “But our process is in place to address those people that don’t. And that’s a very small number of people.”
If the public wants the state to take a more active role, the Legislature needs to give the department more money, said Gabliks, who’s led the department since 2009.
The office of Gov. Kate Brown, who has the power to appoint the agency’s director, did not answer repeated requests to interview her about The Oregonian/OregonLive’s findings.
But one powerful state senator is ready to publicly take on the issue.
“If they are not ensuring that an officer is still qualified and has not abused his or her power, how do we assure the general public that they’re safe?” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was shocked that the department has just two investigators to cover law enforcement and dispatchers.
After Prozanski learned of the newsroom’s findings, he said he plans to hold hearings about whether the department has adequate statutory authority to do its job and whether it’s providing enough oversight.
Shaymond Michelson thinks it’s clear the department is not.
When the officer who beat him in the jail was fired, it seemed like a victory. The officer could not do the same to anyone else, he and his fiancee thought.
“Unbeknownst to most of us, we didn’t realize that letting him go didn’t mean that he couldn’t become an officer somewhere else,” Michelson said.
Charles Caruso is now a sheriff’s deputy in California. Neither he nor his new boss, the sheriff in Contra Costa County, answered requests for comment.
The headquarters of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training is at the state’s police academy, a 236-acre campus surrounded by two prisons and a jail on the rural edge of Salem.
A memorial to fallen officers sits at its entrance. Cadets in plain blue uniforms often file by. It feels like a police station. People have to be buzzed in to attend a public meeting.
Ensconced here, the department’s leaders decide what sort of person should be a police officer and what should cost someone the right to a badge.
The oversight agency has always been heavily shaped by police.
The organizational chart on the agency’s website shows 35,000 certified police, fire and other professionals at the very top, labeled “constituents.”
By statute, 20 of the 23 voting members on the department’s governing board come from the public safety professions that the state regulates. The board also includes one city administrator, one district attorney and one person who represents the public.
Police and prosecutors played an active role in persuading the Oregon Legislature to create the organization in the 1960s.
At the time, the American public, attorneys and the federal government were pressing for police to professionalize. Groundless arrests and police brutality sparked riots in African American neighborhoods across the country. Part of the concern, said DePauw University historian Max Felker-Kantor, was that African American residents had nowhere to go with their complaints except back to the officers they feared.
Lawmakers gave Oregon’s Board on Police Standards and Training the power to grant certificates to officers in 1967. They called on the board to set “reasonable minimum standards of physical, emotional, intellectual and moral fitness.”
Two years later, lawmakers gave the board the power to take certifications away, under two conditions: if an officer was fired for cause or lied on an application.
Legislators over the years added felonies and certain misdemeanors as grounds for stripping officers of their certifications. Lawmakers also added corrections officers, parole and probation officers, dispatchers, firefighters and private security officers to the professions the board regulates.
The result was one of the most expansive certification laws in the country.
But regulators interpret their role to be far more limited than the law allows.
Except for when officers face criminal charges, Oregon regulators wait for an officer’s employer to make the first move. Agency officials won’t open a case unless an officer has been fired, left work as part of a settlement agreement, or quit in connection with a misconduct investigation. They’ll wait until employment appeals are complete before they decide what to do.
The agency’s staff are gatekeepers. They can conclude many cases on their own.
Other cases are sent to the Police Policy Committee, an advisory committee of sheriffs, police chiefs and union representatives. The committee makes a recommendation to the board, which has the last say.
Department officials focus their power to end careers on punishing failings of “moral fitness,” which they describe as officers intentionally doing bad things.
It’s a perspective that leaves out a wide array of behavior many people would find unacceptable for a police officer.
The final straw with Officer Evin Eustice was a high-speed chase one night in June 2012 on the Sunset Highway. He caught a BMW on radar going 20 mph over the speed limit and took off after it. The cars flashed through the highway’s single open lane at 120 mph, stunning construction workers and rumbling their boom trucks.
Within the Beaverton Police Department, Eustice was known for writing a lot of tickets and making a lot of arrests. But he also got in trouble for going too far.
A supervisor once called him out for using force more often than his fellow officers on the graveyard shift.
He was suspended one day without pay for using a Taser on a handcuffed man who’d already been shocked and was kneeling. He was suspended another day for punching a handcuffed man in the face. The two instances occurred within three days in 2011.
Supervisors were skeptical of his explanations: Eustice said he feared one handcuffed man would stand up and the other would spit blood on him. He also told investigators that punching came naturally because he’d trained for many years as a boxer.
“‘Hey, if we need to fight, let’s fight,'” Eustice said in a recent interview, describing his attitude at the time. “I’m the police. I’m here to fight if I have to. It definitely wasn’t something that I shied away from.”
Eustice said he had never been intentionally misleading with supervisors.
The chief, Geoff Spalding, decided the chase through the construction zone would be the end of Eustice’s five-year career in Beaverton. Spalding fired him.
“Your displayed pattern of poor judgment has the potential to expose the City to substantial liability,” Spalding wrote in his termination letter.
Eustice had reached 130 mph before he turned his lights and siren on, according to his police report. He hit a top speed of 144. Spalding found the chase unacceptably dangerous to everyone involved.
The department’s policies had a word for Eustice’s repeated rule-breaking, which Spalding invoked: “incompetent.” A labor arbitrator backed the firing.
But when the case reached the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, officials arrived at a very different conclusion.
Investigator Kristen Hibberds found Eustice’s high-speed pursuit to be “in the best interest of public safety.” In a memo, she said the officer “excelled” at investigating drunken drivers and had “outstanding” arrest and citation stats. Her memo noted his use of force violations but took no position on them.
In the two years between his firing and the department closing his case, the department had certified Eustice to work as a security guard. Facing the possibility that regulators would make him ineligible for other policing jobs, he asked Spalding out to lunch. The man who fired Eustice agreed to write a letter to the state saying the 31-year-old had matured.
The department closed the case administratively. Eustice kept his state certification.
Hibberds didn’t answer requests for comment. Spalding, in an interview, stood by his letter vouching for Eustice.
Eustice said in hindsight he thinks it would have been fair for the state to sideline him temporarily. But he’s glad his prayers were answered instead. He considers policing his calling.
“I want to be out here, and I want to do exactly what I did before, as far as being a hard charger and putting people in handcuffs,” Eustice said. “But I want to do it the right way.”
After applying unsuccessfully for jobs at big police departments in the Portland suburbs, Eustice got hired in St. Helens, population 13,000. The chief, in an interview, said he knew about Eustice’s history and decided to give him a chance. He said he needed an officer like Eustice — someone seasoned and tested, who could teach other officers from personal experience.
The state’s decision not to go after officers fired for poor job performance is the main reason fired officers like Eustice stay eligible to take other jobs, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis found. Among fired officers who stayed certified, more than two-thirds were terminated for performance problems.
Linsay Hale, the department’s director of professional standards, said a state-level review of the chase that got Eustice fired wasn’t necessary.
“That individual officer made a procedural decision in the heat of the moment,” Hale said, “and that typically is not something that we should ever be looking at.”
As for his prior discipline problems, she said her department only considers the action that immediately precipitated a firing.
Oregon law since 1969 has said officers discharged for cause must lose their certifications. Department officials get to interpret what “for cause” means.
Until very recently, being fired for incompetence qualified. The department’s rules defined incompetence as “a demonstrated lack of ability to perform the essential tasks of a public safety professional that remedial measures have been unable to correct.”
But agency officials said that in practice, they don’t decertify for incompetence. Hale said the state Department of Justice recently concluded her agency has no statutory authority to revoke police certifications based on incompetence alone. She said the rule defining incompetence was a mistake, created before she joined the agency in 2010.
Incompetence is out of bounds for decertification, she said, because it’s not an issue of moral fitness, which she says comes down to intent.
“Moral fitness lends itself to someone who’s misbehaving knowingly,” Hale said. “If I’m incapable, unable to do my job, that’s a competency issue.”
But she acknowledged no court has ruled on the question. Four legal experts told The Oregonian/OregonLive they could find nothing in Oregon statute that prevents the state from deciding to decertify officers for incompetence.
Other states do look at incompetence as grounds for revocation. New York cites the word specifically. Arizona says not only malfeasance but also “misfeasance” and “nonfeasance” can cost officers their state endorsement.
The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training makes incompetence grounds for decertification or suspension in its model rules.
Improving the level of competence among police officers, academic experts say, was the very justification for creating state certification boards over the decades.
Charles Caruso walked into the boardroom at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training in Salem. It was Aug. 21, 2014, and a committee of police chiefs, sheriffs and union officers would recommend to the department’s board whether he should lose his policing career for the beating of Shaymond Michelson at the Lane County Jail.
Caruso’s wife and a union representative from the Eugene Police Department also were there.
Tualatin Police Chief Kent Barker, who was the committee chairman, started the meeting shortly after 10 a.m.
Committee members unanimously recommended barring a former Bend lieutenant from police work in Oregon for life. They found that he tried to deceive the officers investigating him for repeatedly having sex on duty.
Caruso’s case came next.
The officer had arrested Michelson on accusations that he drove drunk, hit a concrete barrier with his car and inappropriately touched teenage girls at a party. He was also charged with attempted assault on a police officer. Michelson pleaded guilty, he says, because he couldn’t remember what happened. The charges were later dismissed when a prosecutor learned Eugene police were investigating whether Caruso had used excessive force.
Committee members had read a report written by state investigator Leon Colas, who reviewed the criminal investigation into Caruso and the surveillance footage of him throwing down Michelson and punching him six times while he was handcuffed.
Colas agreed with Scott McKee, the criminal investigator: Caruso, in his police report, had described a struggle with Michelson that never happened.
Colas found Caruso’s actions involved misconduct, gross misconduct, misuse of authority, disregard for the rights of others and dishonesty — all but one of the six possible grounds that the committee considered for decertifying an officer.
“It appears to me that Caruso was misrepresenting the facts to try to justify his treatment of the prisoner,” Colas wrote.
Michelson did not injure the deputy with his kick. But even if the handcuffed man had connected, Caruso’s force was still “improper and excessive,” Colas wrote. “Caruso was responsible for his prisoner’s safety, and he failed in his fundamental duty to protect the man.”
Colas said the state academy didn’t teach officers to do what Caruso did. His technique to gain control “violated the practices and standards generally followed in the Oregon public safety profession,” wrote Colas, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Caruso said in a six-page letter to the committee that his academy training was exactly what he drew from during his interaction with Michelson. Both the academy and Eugene police, he said, taught him that “handcuffed people are dangerous.”
“I reacted to the threat’s actions,” he wrote.
The committee unanimously rejected Colas’ report.
In fights, committee members said, officers often have to use tactics that the state did not teach them. Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe told Colas to take the training section out of his report and bring the case back for a second look.
But Caruso’s case didn’t come back.
Committee chairman Barker, the department’s director and the director of professional standards decided to close the case, no action taken.
“The consensus was that we should be very cautious in taking use of force cases,” Colas wrote in a memo closing the case.
A dozen of the state’s largest police departments and sheriff’s offices gave The Oregonian/OregonLive data on excessive force complaints from 2013 through last year. The law enforcement agencies investigated at least 340 allegations and sustained 26.
Outside authorities have found that police departments across the country have problems with excessive force. Portland police have twice come under federal oversight because of it. The U.S. Justice Department concluded in 2012 that the Portland Police Bureau had a pattern or practice of excessive force against people with mental illness.
Oregonians repeatedly have taken to the streets to say they don’t trust the court system to hold officers accountable. The Justice Department’s action against Portland followed a grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Ron Frashour, who fatally shot a distraught young African American man in the back in 2010. Frashour was fired but reinstated after challenging his termination.
Despite these concerns, Oregon regulators don’t consider police excessive force something they should review independently. It doesn’t amount to a failing of moral fitness, they say.
“We’re not the use of force regulatory agency,” said Gabliks, the department’s director.
Interviewed on the fourth day of protests in St. Louis over the acquittal of a white officer accused of murdering a black man, he said no one in the 50-year history of his organization has called on it to address police brutality.
Presented with the possibility that Oregonians believe excessive force should be the state oversight agency’s business, Gabliks sighed.
“Does that mean the public doesn’t trust the system that we currently have with the judicial system?” he asked.
After Caruso’s case fizzled, regulators decided that the only time they should take action against an officer who has used excessive force is if he or she is convicted in court.
Prosecutions for police brutality are rare. District attorneys work with police every day and are reluctant to criticize them. Cities have a conflict in investigating allegations of police brutality because victims may use the results as evidence in a lawsuit.
Even when prosecutors want to bring criminal charges, the standard of proof is high. Winning a case requires not simply proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but also looking at the facts through the eyes of a reasonable officer at the scene. Oregon licensing and certification agencies, by contrast, need to prove misconduct only by a preponderance of the evidence, a much lower bar.
The only Oregon officer decertified for excessive force from 2014 through 2016 was Eugene Officer John Sharlow. Like Officer Caruso, Sharlow threw a handcuffed suspect to the ground at the Lane County Jail. The key difference for regulators: Sharlow was convicted of first-degree official misconduct and fourth-degree assault, whereas Caruso was charged with nothing.
Kimberly McCullough, the legislative director of the ACLU of Oregon, said the state’s belief that use of force is not an issue to take on was “odd and disconcerting and something I think the Oregon public would be shocked to find out.”
Even the chairman of the state’s board, Marion County Sheriff Jason Myers, said he thinks regulators should examine the case of any officer who is fired or quits because of an excessive force investigation.
That’s something Georgia does.
If a police department tells state officials about an officer disciplined for excessive force, the state will review it, said Ken Vance, the head of Georgia’s regulatory agency.
“We’re going to look at things like that,” Vance said. “Because they were taught better.”
Officer Kurt Van Meter had two competing interests: police work and a budding singing career. He got two crossed revolvers inked on his forearm to display a “reverence to the Western lifestyle” and outlaw country music, he told his chief.
He refused to complete reports or take advice from his sergeant, blaming his defiance on the cowboy in him, the sergeant wrote in a memo.
An experienced SWAT officer and firearms instructor for the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, he had come to the Hillsboro Police Department from the Benton County Sheriff’s Office in the spring of 2007.
He was reprimanded in December 2009 when a sergeant said he caught him speed-racing on Northeast Cornell Road.
But the real trouble started years later, as his country music career began to take off.
In February 2012, Van Meter missed two court appearances in a single day, according to a disciplinary memo. The memo said that because Van Meter didn’t show up, a drug case was dismissed.
Van Meter called in sick the day after his album release concert at Duke’s Country Bar and Grill that May. He insisted he was vomiting due to illness but later admitted to drinking too much after the concert, according to a written reprimand.
He wasn’t following policies and wasn’t turning in reports, performance reviews show. He let one report sit unfinished for 49 days. Van Meter told supervisors he was more productive than his stats suggested.
In 2013, things got worse. Van Meter’s bosses wrote that he failed to clean his gun and failed to properly investigate hit and run and shoplifting cases. He suspended the cases without trying to find a suspect, even though witnesses gave him license plate numbers both times, according a reprimand written by his supervisor. His sergeant scolded him for “failing to perform the duties and expectations of a police officer.”
“In choosing not to investigate certain crimes, you are violating the public’s trust,” the sergeant wrote. He reprimanded Van Meter for dereliction of duty.
Van Meter was put on a work performance plan. Two days later he was in trouble again.
Fired But Fit for Duty
In a forgery case, he arrived an hour late for a grand jury appearance and didn’t bring the evidence, a disciplinary letter said. He had an angry outburst in front of the victim and the prosecutor and slammed the door, muttering on his way to fetch the evidence. A sergeant reported seeing him at a teriyaki restaurant when he should have been in court.
Van Meter argued with his sergeant about the wording of his performance plan, the sergeant wrote in a memo. Van Meter floated the possibility that he was suffering psychological trauma from a chase of a homicide suspect, years before, in which the suspect opened fire. The sergeant said that when he started to recommend counseling, Van Meter interrupted with an expletive.
Van Meter scored 1s and 2s out of 5 in some measures on a performance evaluation. Hillsboro placed him on a last-chance agreement in October 2013.
He didn’t take a report on an alleged felony theft and issued a ticket in a crash without interviewing any drivers, his bosses wrote. His sergeant said Van Meter refused to complete police reports and responded defensively when told that his report on a sex abuse investigation was inadequate.
So on Nov. 12, 2013, Hillsboro police fired him. With the help of the union, he tried to negotiate a resignation. The deputy chief said no.
But when state regulators looked at Van Meter’s firing, they saw no reason Van Meter should lose his state certification. With no written explanation, they closed his case in June 2014.
Van Meter poured more energy into his music. He took the stage ahead of Montgomery Gentry and Gary Allan at the 2014 Bi-Mart Willamette Country Music Festival, which an estimated 18,000 people attended.
Van Meter played his original, “Good at Bein’ Bad.” He wore a black cowboy hat.
It wasn’t long before he found his way back to police work. Last year, he got a job in Dallas, Oregon.
Problems emerged before Van Meter finished his probationary period, Chief Tom Simpson wrote in an email to state regulators. Simpson wrote that Van Meter knew a performance review would likely end with his termination.
In November of this year, Van Meter opted to quit instead. He left with a month of severance pay. He declined to comment for this story.
A state investigator classified Van Meter’s resignation as performance-related, nothing the state would review.
His certification remains in good standing.
— Carli Brosseau and Rebecca Woolington