Portland Police union's bluster over Tased teen's acquittal reflects misplaced indignation: Editorial

By The Editorial Board | The Oregonian | March 21, 2015

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Just when you thought Portland Police couldn't look any worse in the Thai Gurule case, Daryl Turner opened his mouth.

Turner, the president of the police union, decided to weigh in on the trial of Gurule, a Roosevelt High School sophomore who was found not guilty this month of resisting arrest and assaulting and strangling police officers. Multnomah County Circuit Judge Diana Stuart, who watched video footage from three cameras in addition to hearing testimony, not only cleared the 16-year-old, but also criticized the three police officers who illegally stopped Gurule before grabbing, punching, kneeing, pulling his hair and stunning him with a Taser last September.

Most stinging, Stuart found that Portland Police Officer Betsy Hornstein "was not credible in several important instances" in her testimony, which contradicted the video. Footage "clearly repudiates" her claims that the teen was throwing punches.

Turner's response? The union president adopted a who-does-she-think-she is attitude as he ripped the judge for, well, judging.

"What is most discouraging is that when police officers respond to a call, those officers must now be concerned that someone sitting in hindsight, from the safety of a courtroom, will not only question their actions, but also their credibility," Turner complained, according to a story by The Oregonian/OregonLive's Maxine Bernstein.

He also stamped his foot over the judge's consideration of the video footage, arguing that it "does not capture the physical struggle from the officers' perspective, nor does it capture the officers' reasonable, split-second decision-making and thought processes in tense circumstances.''

Bombastic denunciations of anyone who dares criticize the police are Turner's stock in trade. Turner, after all, regularly pens vivid statements decrying, for instance "the culture of hatred" created by the media and the "trampling" of police officers' rights by the city's Independent Police Review division. Of greater concern are recent accusations that he tried to bully and intimidate an IPR investigator, and that the union received leaked information on an IPR candidate.

His bluster reflects in part his role as the defender of Portland's police officers - the vast majority of whom demonstrate every day their unwavering commitment to public safety while safeguarding civil rights and upholding community standards.

Still, none of them are speaking up at the moment. Portland Police Chief Larry O'Dea has remained silent so far, with an investigation by IPR under way. But with little to counteract Turner's bloviating, his hot air only raises the tempers and temperature of a conversation in desperate need of cooler heads. The video and circumstances of the case - Gurule is African American - has once again heightened the longstanding tension between police and minority communities.

Turner seems to forget that Gurule was the one on trial, solely because of the tussle with police. He forgets that it is the judge's job to evaluate the evidence as well as the credibility of witnesses - even if that witness happens to be a police officer - in reaching a verdict. And he forgets that police and prosecutors routinely use video footage in building cases against defendants. At times, it can provide judges and juries a real-time view of an incident whose details are under dispute - just as the confrontation between police and Gurule was. Police do not get special dispensation from scrutiny nor should they expect it.

Still, despite the ugliness of the encounter, there are a couple aspects to celebrate.

Cameras, for one. Two people had the presence of mind to record the scene that unfolded in front of them on their cell phones. That footage was key to refuting the police account of what happened and only lends urgency and support for the use of body cameras on police - provided the city develops a very clear protocol on who, how and when that footage can be accessed and used. A poorly developed plan for handling body-camera footage would be worse than no cameras at all.

And credit also goes to Stephen Houze, a top criminal-defense attorney whose clients typically include high-profile defendants who can afford his premium rates. Houze, however, took on Gurule's case for free, devoting more than 100 hours to it. Houze met with the teen at the request of a friend who volunteers at Roosevelt High School. After watching the stomach-churning video, the decision was made. "That did it for me," he said.

"One of the things you not only have the privilege of doing -- but also have an obligation as a lawyer (to do) -- is to help people in circumstances that are exceptional," Houze added. This was that case.

It's important to remember how this incident began. Gurule was walking down the street, not involved in anything suspicious or criminal, as the police officers themselves conceded. His biggest mistake was responding to an officer's rude attempt to get his attention with additional rudeness.

But within a few minutes, Gurule was on the ground, screaming in pain after police officers pummeled him and used a Taser. He wasn't resisting arrest, the judge found. The teen was acting in self-defense.

If Turner is looking to express indignation, he's channeling it in the wrong direction.

-- The Oregonian editorial board