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PAC member Katherine McDowell presents findings to the City Council in May.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 20 September 2023

Since December, the council-approved group has met weekly to research and develop a stronger and more streamlined system of responding to complaints of misconduct against Portland Police Bureau (PPB) staff. The voter-mandated changes will revamp a currently very splintered system of reporting and discipline: Currently, complaints and cases against police might be handled by the city's Independent Police Review, the bureau's internal affairs unit, the Citizen Review Committee or the police review board. IPR is only able to observe investigations into deadly force cases, but is barred from directly investigating. CRC, meanwhile, is not allowed to hear appeals on such cases. As the community representative in police matters, CRC works in an advisory, rather than disciplinary, role.

The Community Board for Police Accountability will have more might.

“One of the strongest things about the board is their ability to recommend policy changes,” Dan Handelman, member of both PAC and Portland Copwatch, told The Skanner. “So that if they hear over and over and over again that an officer says something without using the n-word but (the complainant) felt it was racial profiling, the board can say you know what? We need to redefine racial profiling.”

Under the new system, if PPB refuses a policy recommendation from the board, the board can then appeal to the City Council to pass the new policy.

“A phrase I’ve been using over and over again is, we’re trying to level the playing field,” Handelman said.

“It’s very difficult to do, (given) this White supremacist system that we’re a part of.”

Indeed, Portland exhibits a higher than usual rate of arbitration rulings favoring officers, according to a report Willamette Week published in February. Nationwide, arbitrators rule for law enforcement 50 to 60% of the time. In Portland, that number was closer to 80%.

Voter Mandated

jo ann hardesty 2022 introJo Ann HardestyFormer city commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty introduced Measure 26-217 in October 2020, after more than 100 consecutive days of protests that began in response to George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, and which was further galvanized by discussions around the homicides of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Jacob Blake and other Black citizens at the hands of law enforcement. In a city where in 2012 the U.S. Department of Justice found the police had violated the rights of people with mental illness, the measure passed with nearly 82% support among voters. 

The passage of Measure 26-217 amended the city charter to create a new, independent police oversight board with the power to discipline and even fire law enforcement staff in cases of egregious misconduct. The measure grants the board some subpoenaing powers and prohibits current and former law enforcement officers, or those who have experience or immediate family members in law enforcement, from serving on the board. Also under the measure the board is guaranteed funding that is proportional to at least 5% of PPB's annual operational budget -- though it should be noted it does not take funding away from PPB to accomplish this.

These are the non-negotiable items. PAC, a diverse group of volunteers, was tasked with proposing a framework that would square this new system with federal law and make sure it was in compliance with the city’s 2014 settlement with the Department of Justice.

PAC held 128 public meetings and hearings, 23 public engagement events and engaged with more than 1,500 members of the community. PAC also researched 19 other law enforcement jurisdictions across the country to gauge methodology and barriers to police accountability. PAC’s final report, issued at the beginning of this month, noted that 52% of civilian oversight agencies – including those in Washington DC, Chicago, Seattle, New York City, San Diego and San Francisco – have the authority to issue subpoenas during misconduct investigations.

PAC envisioned a new 33-member Community Board for Police Accountability, supported by the newly established Office of Community-Based Police Accountability, which is projected to need a staff of about 50.

Other key changes proposed for the board include:

  • Access to unedited body camera footage as needed for investigations
  • The authority to compel testimony from PPB officers, with officers required to respond to such requests within 48 hours 
  • The ability to subpoena witness testimony and relevant records
  • The creation of a complaint navigator position, which would act as a resource for complainants throughout the resolution process

Not all investigations will be triggered by complaints, however: Under the charter amendment, the board will also investigate uses of deadly force and in-custody deaths.

Council Pushback?

rene gonzalez 2023 introCommissioner Rene GonzalezDespite the strong public mandate, some members of City Council have expressed concerns with implementing even the voter-approved changes as outlined in the measure.

During a May 17 presentation from PAC, City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez warned of the “unintended consequences of what was approved.”

Gonzalez ran against Hardesty to win his seat in a run-off last year, and argued that Measure 26-217 was adopted by voters in “a very different city and, frankly, a very different voting base, as existed in 2023.”

Commissioner Mingus Mapps shared his hesitation.

mingus mapps 2022 introCommissioner Mingus Mapps“I need to let my constituents know that this law you passed, especially on the budget side, raises a lot of concerns that I think might be part of the discussion we need to have as we move towards implementation,” Mapps said during the presentation in May.

“It’s not how we do anything else. I’m also keenly aware that the city of Portland is going to be under extraordinary financial pressures in the coming years. Fifty employees is a lot, extraordinarily large compared to where we have been historically, (and) seems to be independent of the amount of actual misconduct or even just business, the police do.”

PAC member Katherine McDowell countered, “I also think that police accountability is a critical aspect of public safety, and I think that is the premise of 82% of people voting for a more effective accountability system.”

“With the amount that the city seems to be paying in police misconduct cases, and the other forms of police reform – the different programs that are already in place for police oversight – I don’t see it as a significant change in money allocation,” PAC member Cameron Browne told The Skanner. “And hopefully this cuts way down on the amount the city pays in police misconduct (settlements).”

ted wheeler introMayor Ted WheelerMayor Ted Wheeler was concerned that the board’s independence from city government and PPB, along with its ability to demand records and documents, might undermine the district attorney’s ability to effectively build cases.

Handelman took exception to the idea.

“The agreement with the U.S. DOJ and investigative protocols say that you have to keep the administrative and the criminal investigation separate,” he told The Skanner. “In the plan we sent to council, that is reiterated multiple times: if there’s anything that’s discovered from the administrative investigation, it’s going to be walled off from the criminal investigation. It’s being respected.”

Handelman observed how the new system would likely be of benefit to officers themselves.

“As a member of Portland Copwatch, with the exception of two, I’ve observed every police oversight board meeting that we’ve had in Portland since 1992, when we started,” he said.

“And when police officers show up in front of the police review board, it tends to make their human story affect the outcome, I think.

"Generally, most of the officers walked away with a less stringent finding than they could have had they not showed up. I’m really hoping that the officers recognize that this could build trust in the community, by agreeing to appear in public and explaining what they did.” 

The Portland City Council will vote on whether to approve PAC’s recommendations on Thursday at 2 p.m. To watch the proceedings and to find out how to submit written testimony, visit portland.gov/council/agenda.

To read PAC’s recommendations, visit portland.gov/police-accountability/documents/pac-city-code-recommendations-08-31-2023.

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