Oregon State Bar Bulletin APRIL 2016
Profiles in the Law
Big Picture View:
Constantin Severe Relies on Multicultural Experience, Constitution for Police Reviews
By Melody Finnemore
A lesson that Constantin Severe learned early in life is that it’s essential to walk in other people’s shoes if you want to truly understand their perspectives. It is a lesson that has served him well since he was growing up on the East Coast, where he often saw other young men of color involved in negative encounters with the police, a lesson that continues to guide his work as director of the Portland’s Independent Police Review.
IPR, a division of the Portland City Auditor’s office, serves as an intake point for community member complaints and commendations regarding the Portland Police Bureau. IPR can refer a complaint to be investigated by the police bureau’s Internal Affairs Department, conduct its own investigation or dismiss it. IPR reviews and must approve every investigation conducted by Internal Affairs and every administrative finding by an involved officer’s commanding officer.
In addition, IPR has a role in recommending policy changes to the police bureau based on community members’ concerns or research IPR has conducted. An example of this is a review of how the police bureau interacted with members of the hip-hop music community in Portland, Severe notes.
He usually gets involved at the initial case-handling decision point, which is whether a case will be dismissed or referred for investigation. “Also, either myself or one of my two assistant directors reviews every case that is investigated by the police bureau,” Severe says. “If the IPR staff member disagrees with the administrative finding, we can refer the matter to the Police Review Board, which is the Portland Police Bureau’s disciplinary board.”
When there is an officer-involved shooting or in-custody death, one of IPR’s three management staff reports to the scene to act as a monitor of the investigation. They have full access to all documents, and the same ability to review and approve the investigation and findings as in regular misconduct cases, he says.
Severe’s rise to leadership of IPR began with an appreciation of history and a passion for protecting people’s constitutional rights. As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Miami, Severe enjoyed history, particularly the Roosevelts, and wanted to learn more about the nation’s system of governance.
“I knew a lot of people who had been taken advantage of, and I wanted to understand the way things worked. I felt like legal training would be the way to do that,” says Severe, whose parents emigrated from Haiti where they had relatives who were attorneys. “I’ve just been motivated to make sure our government works effectively and, with what I’m doing now, making sure that we’re operating constitutionally, in particular.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in political economy, which combined political science and microeconomics, from Andrews University in Michigan. Knowing the rigors of law school that lay ahead, then 22-year-old Severe decided to first spend a year teaching English in South Korea. Although he had visited Haiti before, his international travel experience was fairly limited and he admits to knowing very little about Korea when he made the decision to live there.
“It blew my mind. Being there, it was amazing to see how people are people, just bottom line,” he says. “I’m glad I learned this lesson. My parents come from another country, but I’m pretty Americanized, and I saw that just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s wrong. There is value in putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and you can’t put your viewpoint on other people.”
Severe was fascinated by Korea’s history and has enjoyed watching the country emerge as one of the world’s top economies. He appreciated how cohesive its citizens are and how much they expect of their government. Severe also says that, as a man of color, he felt more respected in Korea than in America.
“It’s such a respectful and communal culture. It wasn’t even in a way I could articulate, but that part of my experience in Korea is something I never want to forget and I really wanted to bring back,” he says. “I love culture and I love the interaction between different cultures. I consider myself to be bicultural.”
When he returned to the United States, Severe worked as a counselor at a youth camp for low- to medium-level juvenile offenders in Florida. The experience reaffirmed his decision to practice law.
“It really firmed up my opinions on trying to help people out if I could. For a lot of kids, it was the first time in their life someone paid attention to them, and some had what would now be called ADHD. They just needed some structure, and then they get sent home and they don’t have any structure,” he says.
As he attended Vanderbilt Law School, Severe particularly enjoyed his criminal law courses. The business school was next to the law school, so he took several classes in venture capital and finance as well.
When Severe received his law degree in 2002 and was deciding where to move next, he had good memories of Big Lake Youth Camp near Sisters, where he had worked with a friend from Boring between college and law school.
“When I was in law school I thought about coming back. I took a class in land use because I was really into that and Oregon has this unique land-use system, so I thought I would hitch my wagon to Oregon,” he says.
Severe clerked for Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge David Gernant while studying for the bar exam. His then joined Metropolitan Public Defender’s office as a criminal defense attorney in its major felonies unit.
“It was a really great experience. Between clerking at the courthouse and working for the public defender, I met a lot of people,” he says. “My interests are my clients — that’s it. You look at what they’re accused of doing, but you have to look at them as a person. They’re not a case file or a statistic.”
Noting that he took an oath to protect and defend the constitutions of Oregon and the United States when he became an attorney and again in 2008 when he joined the Independent Police Review, Severe says he takes those oaths very seriously. When he became IPR’s director in 2013, he saw it as an opportunity to be more proactive than his work as a criminal defense attorney allowed.
“The thing about being a criminal defense attorney is that, a lot of the time, whatever happened happened, and you can’t change it,” he says. “Now, I see this issue and I’m going to let the chief of police or the mayor’s office know about it. Or, we’re going to do some policy work to address this issue.”
Among his goals at IPR is to increase the public’s faith in the city’s administrative investigation of police officers through better accountability and transparency. IPR is also trying to reach the public through outreach efforts and better communication efforts, such as being on Twitter and revamping its website (www.portlandoregon.gov/ipr/26646).
While he can’t get into specifics about investigations because of Oregon laws regarding the confidentiality of the records of public employee misconduct investigations, Severe did note that the complaints IPR receives run a wide gamut.
“The most common complaints regard officers being rude or discourteous. Portland averages around four to five officer-involved shootings in a year. In an average year, we receive about 400 complaints, including around 35 excessive force complaints,” he says.
As he works to ensure the Portland Police Bureau adheres to constitutionality in its work, Severe says bureaucracy often presents the biggest challenge.
“Oregon is very process driven, and trying to navigate the bureaucracy can be disempowering for community members and even for police officers,” he says. “I don’t think it’s intentional, but it makes things very difficult to accomplish and keep things in focus, so institutional change for an organization that complex is very taxing.”
At the same time, IPR’s ability to hire outside experts to review officer-involved shootings has made a true impact, he adds.
“That work has led to significant changes in the way the police bureau deals with deadly force situations. It’s still a work in progress, but if you compare where we were in 2000 and where we are in 2016, we’ve definitely made significant progress.”
Severe and his wife, Erin Snyder Severe, a deputy defender for the state’s Office of Public Defense Services, have a son, Paul, 8, and daughter, Helena, nearly 2 years old. He enjoys cycling, music and gardening. Severe says he is one of the few people in his family who wasn’t a farmer, and he relishes the chance to mow the lawn and grow vegetables and perennial flowers, especially sunflowers.
“There is so much uncertainty in life, but if you put some seeds in the ground, at least 95 percent of the time something will come up,” he says. “That is a simplicity that I don’t have in any other part of my life.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2015 Melody Finnemore