The city’s push for drastic changes to a voter-mandated police oversight committee angered BIPOC leaders, voting activists and many of the 20 commission volunteers who spent months creating a framework for the new system.
The Police Accountability Commission (PAC) presented its new city code recommendations to the City Council in September after a reported 128 public meetings and 23 community engagement sessions. Last week, the city attorney’s recommendations in response shocked many: Cutting the size of the oversight board from 33 members to 21, requiring board members to participate in both police ride-alongs and the Portland Police Bureau Community Academy, and requiring a third of the nominating committee to be law enforcement officials.
In addition, the city added language that would disqualify anyone with an “objective demonstrated bias for or against law enforcement” from participating.
To police oversight advocates, it appeared the city had missed the point.
“The community’s desire for a clear demarcation between the police bureau and the oversight board is evident, and any attempt to blur this line should be rejected outright,” former PAC member Aje Amaechi said. “Equally concerning is the removal of the right to appeal complaint decisions, a fundamental aspect of our previous oversight system since 1982. Additionally, the inclusion of a vague prohibition against anti-police bias is troubling. Such ambitious terms are open to misinterpretation, and could be used politically to sideline voices that advocate for accountability – and in fact I think this is the intent.”
Former PAC members and voting advocates called on city council to delay a vote on the proposed changes, and instead hold a public meeting between the city attorney and PAC participants to allow for more public feedback. Instead, the council voted Wednesday to approve the city attorney’s recommendations. Now, public comment will remain open until Dec. 15, leaving the possibility of further changes to the guidelines. The proposal must then be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice under its 2014 settlement agreement with the city over the PPB’s excessive use of force. Because changes to police oversight must be approved on the federal level, there remains hope the DOJ might influence a system more in line with voter intention.
Former 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. 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.
It was a number invoked repeatedly during last week’s council session to remind the city how much public will was behind strengthening police accountability measures.
“Eighty-two percent is an astounding number,” Seemab Hussaini of the PNW Justice Group said to the council. “You’d hope that any of your initiatives passed by that and not be second-guessed.
"And to suggest that it is a flawed and emotional response to George Floyd is the excuse of corruption, privilege and, at its core, is racism.”
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.
Pastor LeRoy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance and chair of its Coalition for Justice and Police Reform put it simply: “We believe that we must create an oversight committee that has power and authority.” Proposed changes "dilute the police oversight charter," he said.
Former PAC member Lovisa Lloyd spoke of the painstaking, by-the-book approach the group took to creating the new code.
“If you attended any of those meetings, you know that they were not barn burners,” Lloyd said.
“They were dry administrative affairs. They were methodical.
"You know that we frequently read and reread the scope of our assignments page by page and word by word to make sure we understood the assignment.”
Addressing the council, she said, “It is hard to reconcile your previous praise and engagement with the work of the PAC with this mangled, alternate version. Our report was completely within the scope of what you asked from us, it was reviewed by council, and most important it was consistent with what the voters asked for. These edits are baffling and unnecessary, insensitive, ill-informed, and they do not comport with the city’s values.”
Some former PAC members, like Tim Pitts, had further criticism for commissioners’ involvement.
“We wrote 96 pages of city code to structure the new board, which you sliced into 27,” he said. “We held a work session with you in May that ended 30 minutes early because you had so few questions for us. Why didn’t you take that chance to guide us? We invited the Police Commanding Officers Association to our meeting multiple times, and they canceled on us last-minute. They would not give us 20 minutes to help craft the proposal, and you want them to nominate people to the board.”
Former PAC member Sophia Glenn called out but did not name some commissioners for appearing distracted during PAC presentations, either on their phones or talking amongst themselves.
Others objected to the requirement that oversight board members be forced to spend time confined with police.
“The charter says, and PAC’s plan supports, that members of the board should include – but not exclusively – people who have experienced systemic racism and those who have experienced mental illness, addiction or alcoholism,” community member Mark Portis said. “Such persons are unlikely to want to spend any time at all locked in a police car. This provision does not belong in code.”
League of Women Voters of Portland president Carolyn Buppert expressed her organization’s “grave concerns” about how the city had responded to the referendum.
“The public sent a clear message when it approved Measure 26-217: Portlanders want a community-centered oversight system with the independence to do its job, free from political or police bureau interference,” Buppert said. “The city’s proposed code undermines that goal.”
She added, “Furthermore, the proposal disrespects the police accountability commission’s careful work, and will discourage other community members from participating in city boards and commissions.”
Glenn echoed this sentiment.
“I feel as if we are not being trusted,” Glenn said. “Our time and effort has been null and void.”
Charlie Michelle-Westley called the proposed changes anti-democratic.
“You reject the gift of our voice, you reject that our lives matter, while we try to get you to see that this decision is life and death for us,” she testified. “So at the very least, you all owe us the dignity and respect of keeping in mind at every step in this process that you’re making a life and death decision for this city’s marginalized communities. Supporting deadly force and police influence is not ethical, but is continued attempted genocide for our people.”