(Portland, OR) - Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker has deactivated the Portland Police Bureau's Special Emergency Reaction Team, an elite group of 28 officers who handle hostage and sniper situations, while police investigate allegations that its members hazed newcomers and displayed other "workplace improprieties."
The chief assembled a seven-member team of investigators to look into the allegations. As the inquiry continues, the bureau will call on the Washington County Sheriff's Office and Oregon State Police to provide, as needed, tactical assistance for Portland emergencies.
About 7 a.m. Friday, Capt. Bret Smith of the internal affairs division delivered letters to SERT members ordering them to produce for investigators any pictures or videos of SERT events and gatherings.
"I take these possible acts of misconduct very seriously," Kroeker said. "I do not condone and will not tolerate unprofessional and demeaning activities. These should not be allowed in the workplace."
The chief characterized the investigation as an internal administrative matter. He said he did not expect criminal charges to result but added he could not rule that out.
Kroeker decided to temporarily deactivate SERT for the officers' safety.
"I don't want to send the message that I don't trust these officers to do their jobs," Kroeker said. "I don't want them to be preoccupied. It's best not to have them deployed in difficult, dangerous moments."
The team, which was created in 1975 with a mission to help fellow officers in dangerous situations, has been an insular, tight-knit group that undergoes rigorous training throughout the year. The team was all male until a woman officer was selected in 1999. That officer, though, has not been active on the team since mid-January.
Each year, SERT officers spend a week training at Camp Rilea on the Oregon coast, and two days every other week to prepare for hostage or sniper situations. The team has been viewed as a small fraternity of officers who not only train and work together but also socialize, hosting annual banquets, Christmas parties and picnics.
For years, other officers in the bureau have been aware of SERT's so-called initiation rites, but many looked upon the activities as ways to promote a cohesive unit, according to a half-dozen officers interviewed throughout the bureau. New members typically carry all SERT members' equipment, clean all officers' guns and wash the team's dishes after training at Camp Rilea. They often are tapped to organize entertainment during the annual week of training. Some new SERT officers have even had to wear women's clothing or carry a woman's purse, officers said. "You would hear stupid stuff like guys having to wear women's pantyhose underneath their pants -- typical knucklehead stuff," said Officer Rafe Cancio. "It always sounded as though it was typical, harmless guy stuff that you'd find in any locker room. It may be inappropriate in this day and age, but these guys are busting through doors in dangerous situations. You've got to have a certain amount of solidarity, and a certain amount of kidding around with each other." Several SERT members also have their biceps tattooed with the team's mascot, a bat, which symbolizes the team's sometimes stealth, nighttime work. When the first woman was selected to join the team in 1999, it raised some acrimony in the bureau because she was apparently chosen over two men who were ranked ahead of her on a selection list, police said. That woman has not been active on the team since Jan. 18, when she began working in the telephone report unit. She was reassigned to North Precinct patrol March 15. Police would not identify who raised the allegations that led to the investigation. The bureau initially characterized it as an Equal Employment Opportunites complaint. To be selected for SERT, officers must have worked for the bureau at least three years. Candidates undergo an oral interview with SERT commanders, a physical test that includes an obstacle course and a background investigation. From those, they are given a score and ranked. The team's captain selects members from that process, with an assistant chief's approval. SERT members, who work in jobs throughout the bureau and are called in as needed, receive a 6 percent pay boost. With the bureau's internal affairs division swamped by cases, Kroeker said he drew officers from other units to investigate so the inquiry would be handled quickly. He expects it could last six weeks. "I am convinced that we can have these issues investigated rapidly and thoroughly," Kroeker said. "We can then return the operational equilibrium and morale to the bureau's tactical readiness capability."
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