By Don MacGillivray
Despite periodic criticism over the years, Portland police officers are well-trained and thoughtful in their use-of-force. The past use-of-force policy has been improved in recent years. The work to improve policies and procedures continues and is constructively reviewed at annual status conferences.
Many challenges occur in downtown and the Albina community. However in recent years these issues have spread to East Portland and other parts of the city.
Problems include gang violence, drug-dealing, street drinking, mental health issues, and homelessness. Despite the many and varied efforts by both city and community leaders the Federal Department of Justice (DOJ) was called in to review the situation and help to develop a process for change and improvement.
In September of 2012, the United States of America filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon against the City of Portland alleging improper use-of-force by the Portland Police Bureau.
Based on the findings of more than a year of investigation, it was alleged that Portland police officers engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional use-of-force against individuals, especially those suffering from mental illness.
Serious deficiencies were identified in policy, training and officer accountability that contributed substantially to the violations. In October 2012, the DOJ and the City of Portland announced a settlement had been reached that was unanimously approved by the Portland City Council giving the Court authority to enforce the Agreement.
The City of Portland has hired a Compliance Officer and Community Liaison (COCL) and formed a Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB) as required by the Agreement.
Both the Portland Police Association (PPA) and the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition were granted the right to be involved in the negotiations in implementing the Settlement Agreement.
The Agreement includes 190 enforceable provisions in its 77 pages. The City of Portland has the responsibility to implement the Agreement, but the PPA is holding the City to the union contract and declines to change unless it is through contract negotiations.
All parties reached a tentative agreement at the end of 2013 and a fairness hearing was held later for the general public to comment. The agreement was approved in August 2014 with annual updates on the reforms.
This decision was appealed to the court in October 2014 by Portland City Council with support from the PPA. After a year of discussion, the agreement was accepted and the appeal withdrawn.
In March last year, the DOJ released its first Compliance Assessment Report for the Settlement Agreement. The report found the police bureau in “partial compliance”.
Outstanding problems which were not addressed, included, the failure to track data on the use-of-force, the failure to write reports on shooting incidents, and shortcomings of the internal investigation procedures within the police bureau.
PPA believes the rights of the nine hundred policemen and women must be governed by the rules of both the Portland police bureau as well as those of the police union.
The PPA’s primary goal is to preserve and protect the collective bargaining rights of their members. With so much potential for change coming due to the Settlement Agreement, the PPA does not want the rights of the police officers to be adversely affected.
The Police Union believes that the “old crusty cops” who drive to calls within the speed limit, that treat people with dignity and respect, and consider police calls as a community service should be the model for police methods and actions.
A major area of disagreement is about officer-involved shootings. When a shooting occurs, there are two investigations.
In the first, the officer involved must be interviewed by the police management and answer truthfully with a union representative present. The testimony remains confidential because he may be subject to disciplinary action.
The second is done by the detectives in cooperation with the district attorney. In doing so the officer may use his fifth amendment rights to not answer questions. Only the information gleaned from the second process is made public.
For many years, Portland has tried to provide citizen review of the action of the Police Bureau with mixed results through the Citizen Review Board. It has always been controversial because the community believes their investigating authority is not strong enough and the police believe that investigations must remain internal.
The use of body cameras is another area of concern. It is liked and accepted by the police in the traffic division as it reduces the likelihood of a contentious situation. However, for potentially violent events, filming the situation triggers officer concern about the use and interpretation of the video in later interviews.
Over the last few years, the police force has lost about eighty officers. This has resulted in an excessive increase in overtime to cover these duty shortages and creates fatigue and morale issues within the Bureau.
The Police Bureau wants to hire twenty sworn officers in each of the next five years. The Settlement Agreement changes are likely to result in other budget increases such as in the neighborhood response teams, sexual assault investigations, community outreach, records management, the purchase of body cameras, and officer training.
To be successful, the attitudes of the police community and that of the larger Portland community will continue to improve as the new use of force policy that promotes deescalation principles takes effect.
Most members of the Portland police force have good relationships with the community.