By Don MacGillivray
A plea for police accountability has been the root cause of the nightly unrest in the streets of Portland. Demonstrators want police reform so that people of color and disadvantaged citizens are treated appropriately and with respect.
Safety from police coercion and misconduct requires an accountable independent, citizen empowered police oversight system. Even though Portland has struggled for two generations to create a satisfactory system of oversight, this remains a work in progress.
The organizations working for police reform want to limit the size and scope of our police force, reinvest in our communities, find alternatives to policing and reduce punishments for non-violent offenses.
In July, Portland City Council unanimously voted to put a City Charter amendment, Measure 26-217, on the November 3 ballot. It will authorize a new, independent community police oversight board to investigate complaints about Portland’s sworn police employees and recommend appropriate practices and policies to address the concerns of the community.
The Measure will comply with the City’s obligations under the Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act and other state laws by adopting and implementing new City ordinances within the next two years.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is the primary author of this new proposal to address this old issue of police accountability.
For many years, Portland’s minority populations have complained that Portland’s abusive system allows the police to act with impunity towards those populations. Demands for accountability, transparency and public awareness of police dereliction have grown with the nightly demonstrations of Black Lives Matter and their supporters.
In 2018, Commissioner Hardesty became the first Black woman to be elected to the Portland City Council. As a longtime community organizer and former state lawmaker, her paramount priority has been a reform of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).
Commissioner Hardesty and Mayor Wheeler have had a problematic relationship over police matters, but last spring together they agreed to reduce the Portland Police budget by $15 million.
On September 2, three volunteer members of the Citizen Review Committee (CRC), the city’s 11-person police oversight board, resigned because Portland’s system of police accountability is inadequate.
This June, the Independent Police Review (IPR) division received more than 600 complaints about police conduct and more complaints continue to flood in dwarfing the total number of complaints received in 2018.
Volunteers on the CRC that try to hold the police accountable have found the chaos of this summer’s nightly demonstrations has made police oversight practicably impossible.
Portland’s 35 year old police oversight system is complicated, controversial and frustrating for everyone.
Between 1982 and 2001, there was the Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee (PIIAC), consisting of three City Council members that utilized an advisory committee made up of police staff and citizen volunteers. They considered appeals of the decisions from police Internal Affairs (IA). Under this system, the Chief of Police was allowed to overrule the decisions of City Council, thereby protecting officers from sanctions.
In today’s system the IPR receives police accountability complaints, conducts a preliminary investigation and, if necessary, sends complaints to police IA.
Police IA researches the facts and gathers officer testimony to make judgments and policy recommendations to the PPB and City Council. The IPR is an independent agency under the Office of the City Auditor that is autonomous and independent from the PPB.
If there are complaints about the judgments, they go to the CRC, a volunteer board appointed by City Council that hears appeals, gathers community concerns, recommends policy changes and reports their findings to both the IPR and the PPB.
Their decisions are referred to City Council for final adjudication. Their purpose is to improve police accountability as well as to increase the public’s confidence in the PPB.
In the current system, the Portland Police Chief and the Mayor, as the city’s police commissioner, decide whether officers are disciplined for cases of misconduct. However, an arbitrator from the police union can overturn their decisions, if appealed.
Advocates for a new independent oversight board hope that it would be able to investigate complaints against police, the deaths of people in police custody, the use of deadly force and officer caused injuries as well as cases of alleged discrimination and violations of constitutional rights.
The Portland City Auditor, Mary Hull Caballero, oversees the current police oversight system and is a critic of the newly- drafted ballot measure. She understands the pros and cons of the existing system and believes that the goals of the proponents are unrealistic.
If passed, the ballot measure would begin a long process to change city codes, state laws and the Portland Police Association’s labor contract.
This summer, the Oregon Legislature began work on further regulation of police issues and passed the following police reform laws: HB-4201, creating the Joint Committee on Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform; HB-4203 and HB-4301 banning choke holds; HB-4205, requiring officers to report officer misconduct; HB-4207, creating a database to track suspensions and revocations; HB-4208, banning tear gas; and SB-1604, easing the discipline of officers.
The new Joint Committee on Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform is meeting through the end of year to prepare additional legislation for the 2021 legislative session. With meaningful community engagement, the work to dismantle racism and strengthen police accountability continues through updating Oregon laws.
Extensive information about the Portland’s system of police oversight is available on the City of Portland Auditor’s website under “Police Review” and at Portland Copwatch.org.