LWV Police Study: Opportunities for Change

By Don MacGillivray

Policing in Portland is in torment over racism, human rights, mental health, violence and public safety issues. This is not new. 

Studies and reports have circulated nationwide for many years about the faults of the police. The resistance to change remains considerable and the desired change is yet to be realized

Portland has grown from a mid-sized city into one with the law enforcement problems of a large city. In 2020, Portland Police Bureau (PPB) reported 56 homicides and over 5,000 burglaries. They received over 3,000 communications expressing public unhappiness with the police. 

On a more positive note, arrests by police nationwide have decreased every year since 2006, as have the rates of reported property and violent crimes.

The League of Women Voters (LWV) researches many issues regarding the functions of government. They use their work to advocate for the improvement of public policies, laws and plans. 

The Portland League first studied Portland police in 1982 and last year, they finished a new study about police accountability here, in part, due to the recent instability and controversies of the past year.

The study, titled Portland Police Oversight and Accountability, was written and compiled over nine months by 22 Portland LWV members last year. It embodies extensive interviews with more than 20 stakeholders that included police leadership, City Council members, state legislators and advocates knowledgeable about policing. 

The resulting study provides the Portland League with consensus positions for advocacy over the coming years.

The information presented in this study describes many of the current problematic police issues and explains some improvements under consideration. Many of these problems are not isolated to Portland, but ingrained into the character of police work everywhere. 

Positive change will take serious determination and compromise. The culture of policing itself may be the hardest problem to change, along with the antagonistic attitudes of the public.

The report describes the organization of the PPB and the important departments responsible for police oversight and accountability such as the Citizen Review Committee and the Police Review Board. 

A discussion follows about the current concerns around police use of force in stressful situations and extreme behaviors in recent demonstrations.

An important part of the story is the lawsuit filed in 2012 by the United States Department of Justice against the City of Portland alleging a pattern of unconstitutional use of force against individuals with mental illness. The settlement agreement includes 187 items that require attention. 

Since that time, the City of Portland has made significant progress, but the federal oversight of the police bureau continues. 

Because the city fell out of compliance with some of the terms of the agreement, a finding of non-compliance was announced again just three months ago.

A major change is the creation of a new civilian oversight board to address police accountability put to voters via 2020 ballot measure 26-217. 

The voters approved the measure with an 81.6 percent margin. However, implementation will take two years or more because changes must be made to the city code, state laws and the police union contract.

The end date for the current Portland Police Union contract negotiations is June 30, 2021, after a one year postponement. Because of the intensity and contentious nature of the discussions the two sides are likely to have, irreconcilable differences may need to  be decided through mediation or binding arbitration. 

In the past, Portland Police Association rejected many of the public reform attempts in this manner. Some suggestions for change include: 1) reducing racism and the use of force 2) reform of officer accountability and 3) increased transparency of information and data. It is hoped that the results will be more satisfactory this year.

The relationship between the community and the police is necessarily a two-way street, demanding mutual respect and trust. Both must work together to ensure that justice here is accountable. 

Changes won’t come easily or quickly, but there is optimism that things will get better because they must. Practical ideas and proposals are under review, but agreement will be difficult due to the entrenchment on all sides.

The intention of the LWV study and the report is to inform League members and the community about the police in Portland. 

Meaningful, collaborative discussions around improvements leading to positive change in police behavior along with repairing the trust of the community is desired. The City and the PPB have worked to make improvements in policies and practices at many levels. Commendable and continuing progress is underway.

Find links to the LWV report and to the recent video of LWV’s civic education program on the current status of Portland police accountability at lwvpdx.org.

LWV Police Study: Opportunities for Change

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