Pictured from left: Rev. Dr. Leroy Haines and JoAnn Hardesty of the Albina Ministerial Alliance with Michael Rose, longtime defense attorney, at a hearing.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon heard from more than 60 people who testified in his courtroom, Feb. 18 and 19. Many said the proposed settlement agreement between the Department of Justice and the City of Portland needs more work.
The settlement seeks to avoid putting the city on trial after a civil rights investigation found Portland Police Bureau had a “pattern or practice” of using excessive force against people with mental illness.
The judge opened the door for the DOJ, the city or the police union to amend the settlement by March 11. All three parties will submit their final briefs in a hearing that day. Simon also scheduled a final hearing March 24, where he is expected to rule to accept or reject the settlement.
Advocates voiced concerns over racial profiling, inadequate community mental health services, and a negotiation process that left out people with mental illness. Many criticized the proposed settlement as too weak to remedy the problems.
“In the last 35 years, not a single Portland police officer has been disciplined for intentional, unnecessary and unreasonable use of force, often the discharge of a firearm, which has caused the death of a citizen,” testified civil rights attorney Tom Steenson.
“This is true despite (a) the repeated instances of community outrage over many of those deaths, (b) the concern expressed by City leaders and sometimes the current police chief over some of those tragedies, and (c) numerous lawsuits filed against Portland police officers and the City resulting in substantial damages being paid to the families of victims…
“In my opinion, this failure to discipline or in any way hold officers responsible for their use of excessive force has contributed to a culture within the PPB in which officers know they can take the life of an innocent citizen with impunity.
Unfortunately, the proposed Settlement Agreement does little or nothing in my opinion to address the serious shortcomings in the PPB/City’s ability and/or desire to discipline such officers.”
Advocates asked for a host of changes including:
- End the negotiated contract policy that allows officers a 48-hour grace period after a shooting, before they are required to answer questions.
- Limit the number of times officers can employ a taser to subdue a suspect. Currently police are cautioned not to use more than three Taser cycles "unless exigent circumstances warrant use."
- Strengthen the Independent Police Review and empower it to question officers directly.
- Allow citizens and family members to appeal Police Review Board findings to the Citizen Review Committee.
- Change the Citizen Review Committee standard of evidence so it rules on, “the preponderance of the evidence” instead of deciding whether a police supervisor’s decision could have been made by a “reasonable person.”
- Change the Police Review Board rules so community members whose cases are under review may attend.
- Ensure trainers are officers who do not have a history of complaints over excessive use of force.
- Give the community a stronger role in enforcing the agreement.
Consult Hardesty, run by former state Rep. JoAnn Hardesty and Roger Hardesty, has posted links on its website to testimony from the Mental Health Association of Portland, the Albina Ministerial Alliance, the ACLU, National Lawyers Guild, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Portland Copwatch, civil rights attorney Tom Steenson and others.
The city has not yet decided whether to offer any amendments, said Dana Haynes, spokesperson for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales.
“The mayor has been taking time to digest the comments,” Haynes said. “He has not yet had an opportunity to go to his fellow electeds and say ‘As a body, what do we think about this?’”
The Albina Ministerial Alliance, allowed to take part in the negotiations as a friend of the court, but with no vote, is considering suggesting amendments.
The Department of Justice asked the judge to accept the settlement. US Attorney Amanda Marshall told The Oregonian she was confident that the Justice department working with the police compliance officer will have the power to achieve change. Marshall warned that sending the case to trial would mean risking losing many of the concessions the community fought for.
Asked about potential amendments, Marshall said, “The judge has scheduled time for counsel to present written briefs to the Court on March 11. In following the Court’s direction, we expect to make our positions clear in our closing briefs due on that date.”
Despite Reforms Controversy Continues
The original DOJ investigation focused on how Portland police work with people dealing with mental illness, or perceived to have a mental illness. That spurred reforms including, changes in taser policy, use of force policy and police discipline, as well as an estimated $3.5 million investment to create mobile behavioral health teams that include civilian mental health crisis workers.
However, advocates expressed shock and anger when the first hire to the Behavioral Health team was Officer Bret Burton. The former Multnomah County Sheriff’s officer used a taser on a man with mental illness, James Chasse, during the encounter that preceded hi s death. The county paid $925,000 to settle a civil suit in the case.
“The city continues to employ officers who mercilessly and thoughtlessly killed our friends and family members,” the Mental Health Association of Portland stated in its testimony.
“The Agreement introduces no mechanism to separate those individuals from the police bureau, in order to prevent future threat to us, or hold them duly accountable. No amount of policy, training, or wringing of hands can amend these crimes, and nothing has been done to protect us from the officers involved.”
Adding fuel to the fire, last November the Portland Police Bureau hired Mary Claire Buckley to implement the settlement agreement. Buckley, the former head of Oregon’s Psychiatric Security Review Board, had resigned from that position in August 2013 amid accusations she behaved abusively to staff and clients.
The Skanner News asked U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall if the bureau’s controversial hiring choices undermined her confidence in its leadership. She declined to answer that question.
Marshall told The Oregonian she was confident that the Justice department, working with a compliance officer in the police bureau, will have the power to achieve change. And she said that disparities in stop and search data did not amount to evidence of racial profiling.
This week, the bureau called for applications for the position of Compliance Officer/Community Liaison. The closing date for applications is March 10.
The Portland Mercury reported that Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner sent a message to officers saying advocates at the hearing took it in turn to “bash” officers.
“..never have I been exposed to such an array of complaints directed at the men and women who risk their lives every day to protect those who fall victim to crime, misfortune, or crisis,” he wrote. Turner went on to question the value of citizen oversight.
The DOJ report did not investigate racial profiling, but did raise concerns about longstanding mistrust between the bureau and communities of color in Portland.
Yet concerns over racial profiling were front and center at the Fairness Hearing, as citizens related examples of what they believed to be race-based discrimination.
A report released Feb. 19, breaks down stop and search data from 2011 by race. The statistics show that Black drivers and pedestrians are more likely to be stopped than Whites, and in greater numbers than their presence in the population.
It also notes that African Americans are more likely to be searched, but less likely to have drugs, alcohol or weapons when they are searched. Hispanics and Asians also are less likely to have contraband.
The report, prepared for the police bureau argues that the disparities are not caused by profiling. African Americans tend to live in high crime neighborhoods, for example, the report said, and police correctly put more attention into policing those neighborhoods.
Andrew Riley, public policy director for the Center on Intercultural Organizing, said that is not the whole story.
“What really gives me pause is that Black folks are only about 6 percent of the city’s population, but as many as one in five of all pedestrian stops. We have known for a long time we have issues with disproportionate policing but at the same time it’s still disturbing to see the numbers in print.
“CIO members come in on a fairly regular basis to talk about their interactions with the police, and the fact that they have been profiled. So when the Portland Police argue that there is no profiling or profiling is not, at least partly, responsible for these statistics, then I have a hard time believing that.”
This article was updated Feb. 27.