Behind the Badge in River City: A Portland Police Memoir is not a book I would recommend to the general reader. Instead, I recommend it enthusiastically to two groups of readers, those interested in Portland history and those interested in policing and police reform. It is chock-full of history and details of the past that would fascinate Portlanders. Author Don DuPay is scrupulously precise in providing location details that situate the anecdotes he tells, so that the Portland of the 60s and 70s comes alive for the reader. As someone who believes police reform is an urgent problem, Behind the Badge is a useful insight to how even cops with good intentions and a commitment to public service become part of the system against their will and reinforces my belief that reform requires reinvention, not tinkering around the edges.
As a memoir, it suffers several flaws. Good memoirs require self-reflection, not self-justification. There is far too much of the latter and far too little of the former. DuPay describes many of the petty forms of corruption and flagrant violations of people’s civil rights that he witnessed. These things bothered him, but he would have been fired during his probationary period if he said anything. In fact, when he slipped and did say something, he got a dressing down. He takes great pride in paying for his coffee the day that he finished probation instead of accepting the usual free coffee provided the police. However, throughout his service years, he accepted free gas and oil changes, free meals, free coffee, free drinks and then at other times he paid and made a point of paying, even remarking how the waitress was puzzled by his payment. I found this inconsistency repeated in his contempt for officers who abused their position or used excessive force while justifying his own kicking an unconscious motorist who has crashed after a high speed chase because the chase has pumped him up and made him angry.
In an early chapter, DuPay writes “In the early 1960s gay people were called queers and faggots and were the target of extra police attention.” Notice that passive voice, absolving everyone of responsibility. No, gay people were not called that in the 1960s. Then and now, homophobic bigots called gay people that; decent people did not. They were not the “target of extra police attention”, the police abused their power to harass and oppress them by hanging outside gay bars to ticket them for jay-walking and other minor offenses.
The memoir would also have more power as a call for reform if DuPay did not use it to settle some scores. While it is common for a man to have a dim view of his ex-wife after a divorce, but when someone writing a memoir writes, “She was a textbook sociopath, a chronic manipulator and a pathological liar,” he loses credibility. Marriages fail, but usually both parties are responsible. Another time, he writes, “I would never want to influence the reader’s impression about this lieutenant…but he was a racist, amoral asshole.”
He names names, but he is selective in who he names. He accuses former Commissioner Dick Bogle of beating a handcuffed prisoner], but then uses a pseudonym (indicated by italicizing and using only a first name) when another officer arrests someone for being drunk on the street when he was only drunk on his front porch, as the pseudonymous cop explains, “It don’t matter what he did. It only matters what I tell the judge he did.” He names so many names of drunk cops, drunk-driving cops, cops who sandbag on the job and who are derelict, but then many equally awful officers are unnamed or only their first names are given. Is this because some are dead and cannot sue? Some explanation as to why some are named and some are not would be useful, because it leaves the impression that he only names those who cannot defend themselves.
The thing is, DuPay was a good cop—or as good as anyone can expect in a system that discourages excellence. He wanted to protect and serve. He was not trigger-happy. In fact, he heroically endured quite a beating by an angry crowd rather than draw his gun and kill someone. What he makes clear is that even those with a true calling to civil service cannot overcome the rot at the core and eventually end up collaborating in it, as he did when he ended a high speed chase after a drunk driver only to discover a fellow officer at the wheel. Even when he wants to do the right thing, the above-the-law police culture will not allow it. Instead, since he cannot act against the flagrant corruption and incompetence, his frustration and anger turns inward. He drinks, he has high blood pressure, he has bleeding ulcers. The corrupt culture of the Portland Police Bureau is literally killing him and so, after just short of twenty years on the job, he resigns.
I give DuPay credit for realizing that much of his job was doing the wrong thing, hypocritical at best. Working in Vice, was dispiriting. It also was dangerous as drinking on the job, which was part of the job, affected his judgment. He also came to realize that policing consensual sexual activity was wrong and also an impossible task. There are moments that will bring the reader to a dead stop, asking did he just say that? Yes, he did. For example, “black folks were quicker to react violently, quicker to assault, quicker to shoot, quicker to stab.” He also says that women have no business being patrol officers. There is more than one example of descriptions of women officers that seem more driven by misogyny than fact.
Behind the Badge suffers from poor editing. Homophones such as canon for cannon and isle for aisle occur. Worse, the editor has a fundamental misunderstanding of when to use ‘s—using it for plural nouns while not using it for possessives. This was not a one, two or even three time mistake, but happened throughout the book. There are occasional uses of words that do not mean what they think they mean. Memoirs by nonprofessional writers require more of the publisher in terms of editing and I think the author was let down by his editors.
Reading this memoir, it seems as though it was told aloud, recorded and transcribed, spoken instead of written. It feels like an oral storyteller’s anecdotes more than written memoirs. Many of the stories would have benefited from more detail, but perhaps years of condensing a lot of detail into concise police reports has made it difficult for DuPay to expand into a fuller, more literary narrative.
Don DuPay has a website where he has more stories of Portland’s history and some essays about his personal conflicts with the PPB and his evolving opinions on several issues. It is worth reading a few of his other essays to get a fuller picture of the man.
It is hard to rate this kind of memoir. It is not written by a professional writer and it shows. However, DuPay has something interesting and important to say about the state of policing. Some may argue that things have changed, and they certainly have, but the essential corrupting forces in police culture that DuPay identifies remain the same: police officers feel above the law; there is a code of silence that protects corrupt and incompetent officers; they are expected to work under enormous stress with little emotional support; and the officers who speak up about problems are punished. On the other hand, his obvious resentments and personal grudges weaken his argument. That is why self-reflection and deep soul-searching are essential to a good memoir.