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By Ian K. Kullgren October 5, 2012

Are Portland's use of force standards stricter than the federal standard?

The Portland City Council's decision to fight the mandated rehiring of Portland police officer Ron Frashour -- the man responsible for the 2010 fatal shooting of Aaron Campbell -- has again stoked public discussion about use of force.

Central to the Frashour case is the question of whether the officer used the proper level of force in his interactions with Campbell two years ago. Frashour was initially fired after shooting an unarmed Campbell in the back, though a Multnomah County grand jury had found no criminal wrongdoing. The case then went to an arbitrator who heard  training officers testify that Frashour acted as trained.

The city is fighting that determination and the controversy over the policy and Frashour’s actions has stayed hot.

In a small Twitter dust up, one user (@nextchampjr) asked Mayor Sam Adams if he thought the federal standard for use of force, which the arbiter found Frashour met, ought to be reworked. The mayor replied that, in fact, "Portland has higher standards than feds on allowed police use of force."

We wondered whether that was accurate.

Before we get to our analysis, we note that we’re staying out of the debate over how Frashour was trained, and how well. We are only examining the policy.

First, we needed to establish the generally accepted federal standard. Such a standard exists,  but not in quite the way you might expect. There’s no series of agreed-upon federal guidelines that lay out exactly what sort of force can be used in a specific instance. Instead there’s a legal term called the Graham Standard or the Objective Reasonableness Standard.

Back in 1989, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Connor that any questions regarding the use of force should be held to the Fourth Amendment rules of "reasonableness." Essentially, this means that any use of force should be such that it would be deemed necessary by "a reasonable officer."

"When we say reasonable, it's an objective standard," explains Tung Yin, a criminal law professor at Lewis and Clark. "You judge it from the perspective of the reasonable officer on the scene."

This caused some controversy at the time the case was decided because whether you perceive force as reasonable in the heat of the moment -- which is the standard -- is often different than how you perceive it after the fact, Yin said.

So, how is Portland’s policy different? Caryn Brooks, the mayor's spokeswoman, pointed us to Portland Police Policy 1010.20. According to that policy, adopted by former Police Chief Rosie Sizer, officers should use "only the force reasonably necessary under the totality of circumstances to perform their duties and resolve confrontations effectively and safely."

That piece just gets the bureau in line with the legal standards. But the policy also adds these two pieces of direction:

1) "It is the policy of the Bureau to accomplish its mission as effectively as possible with as little reliance on force as practical."

2) "The Bureau expects members to develop and display, over the course of their practice of law enforcement, the skills and abilities that allow them to regularly resolve confrontations without resorting to the higher levels of allowable force."

Yin described this text as more "aspirational text, rather than any sort of legal requirement" but said he felt the mayor’s characterization was accurate.

We agree with Yin. We rate this claim True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Mayor Sam Adams’ Twitter account, Sept. 25, 2012

Graham v. Connor, 1989

Portland Police Policy 1010.20, 2009

E-mail from Caryn Brooks, spokeswoman for Mayor Sam Adams, Sept, 28, 2012

E-mail from David Woboril, Senior Deputy City Attorney, Oct. 4, 2012

Interview with Tung Yin, a criminal law professor at Lewis and Clark, Oct. 4, 2012

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Are Portland's use of force standards stricter than the federal standard?

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