Op-Ed By Don MacGillivray
Currently the City of Portland and the police union are in the middle of difficult contract negotiations. There is a high degree of polarization going on within various interest groups over the outcome.
Last fall, a new police oversight board was adopted through measure 26-17 that received an 82 percent majority vote.
Immediately after the election, the police union filed grievances with the city and police bureau, arguing that the disciplinary practices proposed in the new oversight board must be brought into compliance with state law, the city charter and city codes as well as negotiated as part of the police union contract.
The police union believes the current multiple levels of oversight are more than adequate, even though it has been severely criticized by the community for decades.
The new oversight board will replace the existing police oversight system. It will have the power to hold police accountable for their actions, which leaves the police strongly opposed to this new system. Currently decisions about the discipline of police officers lie with the police chief, police commissioner, City Council and/or the existing citizen oversight committee.
The public wants more transparency and police accountability, however the police wish to retain control and secrecy regarding the methods and actions during controversial situations involving their officers. This is especially true during investigations involved with the officers’ use of deadly force.
Police staffing continues to be a big issue left over from the 2016 union contract negotiations. These issues revolve around overtime, the retention of officers nearing retirement and the recruitment of new officers.
The demands on the police department over the past year have increased excessively from previous years and this has required difficult decisions made amid much criticism.
The nightly demonstrations of last summer required 160,000 hours of unplanned police overtime, expected to cost $15 million this year. Police union leadership has charged this situation is due to poor management and that it is up to the city to fix.
This implies that the budget for Portland Police Bureau must increase, but progressive critics want the police force defunded and replaced with alternative methods of law enforcement and emergency response.
Police are accused of being the major cause of the demonstrations and riots because of their aggressive methods of enforcement. Even so, it is hard to understand how advocates can advocate for reducing the police budget through an undefined reorganization.
By national standards, Portland’s police force is small. Of the 40 largest cities in the country, Portland had the second lowest number of officers per capita in 2016. The bureau had 882 sworn members of all ranks as of September, out of 917 authorized positions.
However, a large number of these officers are undergoing training and are still on probation. Others are senior officers nearing retirement. Considering that Portland has a larger number of crimes per capita than most large cities in the US, adding more officers would seem to be justified.
During the pandemic, all bureaus, including Portland police, were asked to cut 5.6 percent of their general fund budget. In June 2020, the police bureau had an additional $15 million cut from its budget in the wake of racial justice demonstrations and protests. Many of these protesters are seeking to cut the police funding further.
Unite Oregon is the largest and strongest organization holding Portland accountable for the actions of the police force and the new contract negotiations. Created by a merger of the Center for Intercultural Organizing and Oregon Action, they are devoted to the improvement of the lives of immigrants, refugees, people of color and the disadvantaged in Oregon.
They are joined by Albina Ministerial Alliance’s committee for Justice and Police Reform and many other social services, nonprofits and churches.
From April 2018 to July 2020, Portland Police Bureau officers took the lives of nine people, had close calls with several more and launched brutal assaults on unarmed demonstrators during many of the nightly demonstrations and riots against police brutality.
The Police Union contract allows this to occur and many believe this must change. Lack of public trust in the police is a serious reality and Portland needs to create the effective civilian oversight board that was adopted in the November election.
The Portland Police Association is affiliated with the United Coalition of Public Safety, a national organization that supports the independence and control of police unions across the country.
It is conservative and resistant to change and they see any attempt at increased oversight and accountability as acting against the interests of the police. They believe that the answer to crime and safety issues is to provide more police.
The city needs a criminal justice system that will work to reduce the many challenges facing all the communities in Portland.