Portland, OR – A city commissioner on Wednesday shared for the first time the inflammatory remarks made by a Portland police sergeant almost two years ago that got him relieved of duty.
The pivotal incident occurred at the 4 p.m. roll call on Feb. 12, 2017 when an officer brought up a recent police-involved shooting, according to KPTV.
That’s when Portland Police Sergeant Gregg Lewis said he made a sarcastic remark that was taken the wrong way.
“For the – the couple of days prior to that, we had been talking about some statements that were in the media regarding officer-involved shootings and when we shoot a person of color, we kill them, and then when we shoot a person – a white person, a Caucasian person, we only wound them,” Sgt. Lewis explained to internal affairs investigators at the time.
“So there had been these ridiculous statements in the media about the decisions we make when we shoot people. So these conversations had gone on right before roll call in the locker room, there had been conversations about that particular topic. So, as we were just getting finished, I remember saying, and I thought it was kind of humorous, in light of these stupid conversations in the media, so, you know, unless it’s a black guy, then we just shoot them….,” he continued.
“The conversation about if it was a black guy, we would just shoot them, is inappropriate and, as a supervisor, I should have been aware of that and thought a little more plainly about what it is I was saying and the message I was delivering and how it was received…,” Sgt. Lewis conceded. “Having had time to look at this, I understand that somebody could take offense to this, but I was just trying to highlight this ridiculous stuff that was in the media, bring people back down to the ground, the officers, you know.”
“I believe a large portion of the folks in that roll call gathered that this was a satirical comment on the media, but it just kind of hurts me that it gets painted in racial overtones, because there was never any intent to make it that. So, yeah, I’m sorry…” the sergeant told the Portland Police Bureau’s Internal Affairs investigators.
And his joke didn't go over well.
Most of the three sergeants and 16 officers present for the inappropriate remarks reported it to their superiors.
In fact, all three of the other sergeants present had reported it to their lieutenant before the end of that shift, according to The Oregonian.
After an investigation by the Bureau of Human Resources, Sgt. Lewis was fired for his comments on Jan. 12, 2018, KPTV reported.
However, the police union filed a grievance on his behalf that said the former police sergeant should not have been terminated.
The city denied the grievance, and so the union asked to take the case to arbitration.
But the city attorney’s office told the Portland Police Bureau that if the case goes to arbitration, it’s likely that an arbitrator would look at the former sergeant’s otherwise-clean 25-year record on the police force and order the police department to reinstate him, according to KPTV.
In that case, the department would owe former Sgt. Lewis that lost pay from the year he was terminated, and likely lost overtime pay as well.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the police commissioner, said he’s willing to take a financial hit to avoid having the former cop back on the streets of his city, KPTV reported.
“I am willing to take the heat and pay the settlement to get rid of him because he’s not up to the standard I have for the Portland Police Bureau,” Wheeler said.
If the city were to settle with Lewis, the former sergeant would be reinstated to be retired from the Portland Police Bureau, and he would be paid $100,00 in back pay.
However, the settlement would also stipulate that Lewis could never work for the Portland Police Bureau or any other city agency ever again, according to KPTV.
Lewis initially retired from the police department in October of 2016 but returned to active duty two months later during a rush to fill vacancies on the force, The Oregonian reported.
“None of us are happy with this outcome,” City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said. “Past councils have bargained away a lot of our power to oversee the Portland Police Bureau. I want us to get rid of mandatory arbitration altogether. We should be able to get rid of any city employee who engages in this kind of conduct.”
Portland State Senate Bill 383 would change the arbitration process to require an arbitrator who agrees with the fact-finding to also confirm the punishment issued by the mayor and police chief, KPTV reported.
“It’s clear we have a broken system,’’ City Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty said. “If it was up to me, I’d say let’s go to arbitration. Let’s fight the good fight because even if we lose it, we send a very strong message that this is just not acceptable. That you’d don’t get to sit in roll call and make racist comments and you don’t get a pay day on top of your city-paid retirement.’’
Commissioners are scheduled to vote on whether to settle with Lewis on Feb. 6, according to KPTV.