UPDATE (Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019 at 10 p.m. PT) — The Portland City Council postponed a vote Wednesday on a controversial settlement deal for a police sergeant fired after colleagues reported him making a racist remark during a morning roll call.
The settlement would allow Sgt. Gregg Lewis to retire with more than $100,000, or nine months’ back pay. In exchange, he would be ineligible to work for the city or the Police Bureau in the future.
The city attorney has recommended that the council approve the settlement. It was originally introduced with an emergency clause, which would have required a unanimous vote of the council to pass.
The council struck that clause, setting the measure up to pass with a majority next week, while also clearing the way for Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty to vote against it.
Laying out her position against the deal, Hardesty read what she said were Lewis’s offensive remarks to the full council chamber: “’If you run into a drunk on the street who’s white, in a suit, let him go, because he’ll probably sue you. If he’s a Latino, call CHIERS,’” she said, using the acronym for a sobering station in downtown Portland. “‘If he’s black, shoot him.’
“That’s what the officer said. That’s why other officers turned him in. I’m happy that those officers turned him in,” Hardesty said.
That is not exactly what Lewis said, according to an excerpt of the disciplinary letter he received from the bureau. That document includes an account by one of the sergeants who reported Lewis’ conduct to the police chief:
Sergeant Gregg Lewis #22515 gave roll call. During roll call we had a conversation about whether or not police could legally detox subjects from parking structures. Sergeant Lewis told officers to “be smart” about who they detoxed from inside the parking structures. Sergeant Lewis stated, “If you come across a guy in a suit and tie that came downtown and had a little too much to drink… he’s probably not the guy you want to detox straight out of the garage. He will most likely sue you. If it’s a homeless guy, you will probably be safe. I doubt he’s going to sue you.”
At this time an Officer mentioned he had read an Oregonian article about the Andrew Hearst shooting. The Officer stated he had read the comments section of the article and was dismayed because a citizen had written, “PPB kills black people, but only injures white people.” Officers began talking amongst themselves about this statement and then I heard Sergeant Lewis state, “well, let’s just go out and kill all the black people”.
I looked around the room to gauge the affect this statement had on the officers. The officers appeared shocked and astonished. There was some uncomfortable laughter throughout the room, but most officers were quiet. This brought roll call to an end.”
Hardesty thanked Mayor Ted Wheeler for removing the emergency clause from the ordinance.
“I would not, under any circumstances, vote for this settlement,” she said.
Wheeler declined to publicly elaborate on the remarks that Lewis made that prompted the city’s effort to fire him, but referred to them as “patently racist.”
Council staff told OPB the briefings they’d received hadn’t included Lewis’s exact remarks.
Late Wednesday, the mayor’s office released the full letter Lewis received stating he was being terminated. The letter includes a detailed account of the investigation into Lewis, including multiple officers’ recollections of his remarks.
According to the disciplinary letter, Lewis characterized his comments as a sarcastic attempt at humor. He acknowledged that they were inappropriate remarks for a supervisor to make.
“Your remarks shocked and left a negative impression on the officers and sergeants who were present,” the letter concludes. “It does not appear you fully understand the impact of your statements and the implication that you were encouraging or condoning mistreatment of a group or class of individuals based on their race. Given the egregiousness of your behavior I have concluded that the termination of your employment is the appropriate level of discipline in this matter.”
The letter is signed by Police Chief Danielle Outlaw and Wheeler.
Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner, argued that the settlement was the surest way to ensure that Lewis is taken off the police force for good. The Portland Police Association had filed a grievance challenging Lewis’ punishment. The city denied that grievance and the Portland Police Association had advanced the grievance to arbitration.
It’s extremely difficult to fire police officers in Oregon. Portland city attorneys believe that Lewis, who had no previous disciplinary history, would likely win back his job or a larger payment through arbitration.
“What we’re paying for in this settlement is certainty,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler suggested that the city’s difficulty disciplining Lewis lay with arbitrators who, he said, undermine the mayor and the police chief’s authority to discipline public employees.
He said the city has introduced state legislation to address that problem.
But in public testimony, one longtime police reform advocate pointed out that the city’s weak position arguing for Lewis’s termination came from the Police Bureau’s internal discipline guidelines.
“The discipline guide says the most serious discipline you can get for racial bias comment is 120 hours off, which is what is in the agreement you’re signing today,” said Dan Handelman, with Portland Cop Watch. “What you need to do is change the discipline guide, not state law.”
“Absolutely,” the mayor agreed. “We need to change both.”
Among those who came to testify against the settlement deal for Sgt. Lewis was Donna Hayes, the grandmother of Quanice Hayes, an African-American teen shot and killed by police officers in 2017.
Donna Hayes reminded Wheeler that he had promised not to tolerate racism or threats of violence by police officers and had said officers who made such remarks would face severe discipline.
“So in keeping your word, you pay him off?” she said. “You are not a man of your word. Instead, you let this racist retire.”
“This is what’s called a lose-lose,” Wheeler could be heard muttering in response, just off mic.