The Portland City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to refer a measure to the November ballot asking Portlanders to overhaul police oversight in the city.
Voters will consider scrapping a system many have denounced as toothless and replacing it with a new model championed by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.
Amid a two-month-long uprising against police violence, protesters have regularly called for the city’s police oversight bodies to be granted more authority when it comes to investigating and disciplining police officers accused of misconduct. Mayor Ted Wheeler has said he believes the Independent Police Review, a city agency that investigates complaints made against police officers, and the Citizen Review Committee, which serves as its advisory board, don’t “have the kind of the kind of teeth that true independent oversight requires.”
Buoyed by calls to reform the system, Hardesty’s office began reaching out to community leaders in late June, seeking input on what sort of oversight system they wanted. One month later, the commissioner arrived at City Council with a proposal that, if passed by voters, will enshrine a new independent police oversight board within the city charter.
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“This is about community accountability and community safety,” Hardesty, a longtime advocate for police reform, said before casting her yes vote.
She went on to try to assure officers within the Portland Police Bureau, whose union has come out against the measure, that they shouldn’t be wary of the proposed changes:
“I want to reiterate to Portland Police officers and their family, there should be nothing to fear in this reform if they’re committed to serving the community,” she said. “This new measure will make them better and will make new officers who joined them better. This is about being accountable to each of us.”
Hardesty’s plan won support from all three of her fellow Council members, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who oversees the police bureau. The mayor said he’d heard the clamor in recent months for the bureau to be held more accountable to Portlanders. But he also made a push for Portland police to be included in the upcoming discussions about the measure.
“I don’t want to leave this hearing today without saying, ‘There is an important role for the men and women of the Portland Police Bureau,’” he said. “I have a lot of respect for the work they do. They bring a lot of experience and expertise to this question. They know what works, and they know what doesn’t work.”
According to the new language proposed for the city charter, the board’s duties would include investigating complaints against police, in-custody deaths and incidents in which police discriminated against a protected class, cases in which officers are accused of violating a person’s constitutional rights or and incidents of deadly force.
The board would have the authority to access police records, subpoena documents, compel testimony, discipline and terminate officers, and make policy and directive recommendations that the City Council -- not the police bureau -- would have the final say on implementing.
Its budget would be set at a minimum of 5% of the police bureau’s annual operating budget. This year, that would be at least $11.5 million.
Related: City Council approves cutting $15 million from Portland police budget
In the lead up to Wednesday’s vote, Hardesty invited community leaders to offer public testimony, including state Rep. Tawna Sanchez, Commissioner-elect Carmen Rubio, the Rev. LeRoy Haynes from the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, and Candace Avalos with the Citizen Review Committee. Many framed the ballot measure as a chance to answer the call for reform that thousands have been demanding in the streets each night.
“Over 60 days of protests have highlighted the frustration of a community that has spent decades asking - even begging - for meaningful reforms to our systems of police accountability,” said Avalos, who noted she was not speaking in her official capacity as chair of the CRC. “....We owe it to Portlanders to respond to their nightly demands for justice with bold legislation, which addresses the heart of the protests: truly independent review of the police to hold them accountable for the harm they cause the community.”
Other community members used the session as a chance to share their own experience with police violence and a city they say has had failed to hold the officers who inflicted it accountable.
Mark Chasse — whose brother James Chasse Jr. died after being tackled, Tasered and kicked by police in 2006 — spoke about the need for an overhaul of the system. His brother’s death sparked outrage across Portland after it came to light years later that police had assaulted an innocent man with schizophrenia. Chasse said Wednesday that the state medical examiner compared his brother’s injuries to what someone would receive falling from a skyscraper.
“We waited nearly four years for a top-secret internal investigation,” he said. “The lies and misdirections of the officers who killed my brother should have formed a criminal homicide investigation.”
Instead, he said, the discipline proposed was a loss of two weeks of pay. And an arbitrator ended up overturning that decision.
“What I just described is our police oversight system at work. I know many of you would agree that nothing has changed since my brother was killed,” he said. “The city still hasn’t fixed this massively corrupted police oversight system.”
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During two hours of testimony Wednesday, community members largely spoke in favor of the measure. City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who oversees the Independent Police Review, was the most notable exception.
Hull Caballero critiqued the proposal as unvetted, unrefined and rushed. She warned the Council they were moving forward with a plan that not enough Pomanders had had time to look through for themselves.
“You’re being asked to refer an unvetted, unrefined model of oversight that throws out the best of what works in the current system for a hazy promise of something better down the road,” Hull Caballero warned the commissioners. “... You’re being asked to write with a permanent pen instead of a pencil.”
Hull Caballero has accused Hardesty of going on a “misinformation campaign” against the existing system of police oversight, which she said dehumanized the public servants who couldn’t publicly defend their work. She also noted that the budget proposed for the new board was more than what is received by the entire Auditor’s Office, which she said employs 51 people.
The auditor has warned that some of the problems with police oversight in Portland cannot be fixed simply by throwing out the old model. Some issues need a change in state law to be properly addressed. Others are built into the contract with the Portland Police Association, the union for rank-and-file officers, such as the clause that says an officer has to be disciplined in a manner that is least likely to embarrass the officer.
In the last few days, the Portland Police Association has joined the auditor in publicly criticizing the proposal as rushed and lacking community input. But the union has gone further in their critique: they say it’s illegal.
In a letter sent Monday to the four City Council members along with the city auditor, Daryl Turner, the head of the union, wrote that he believed the proposal violated the law “in at least four separate ways.” Turner said he believes Hardesty’s plan runs afoul of the city’s 2014 settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, the city’s bargaining obligations, the Oregon Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution.
Like the auditor, he accused the commissioner of rushing the plan. Hardesty has countered these critiques by saying the ideas have been brewing over the three decades she had advocated for police reform.
“No stakeholder group has met. There has been no debate about alternative approaches” the union’s letter read. “And no formalized public input has been sought. This lack of transparency is striking, made even more so by the ‘we’ll fill in the blanks later’ character of the proposed charter amendment”
The city’s leaving many of the finer details about the board to be determined. If the measure is passed by voters, Hardesty’s staff said they plan to have City Council create a commission, which would flesh out the board based on the framework in the charter.
During the Council meeting Wednesday, Wheeler posed a question to Hardesty’s policy director, Derek Bradley: “Do we know if this is legal at this time?”
Bradley said he believed the way the measure was drafted would stand up to any legal challenges after vetting from the city attorney’s office. He also noted there will need to be changes in the city’s contract with the police union as well as state law for the proposed oversight system to become a reality as currently envisioned.
“There’s a long runway between now and when we would be really flipping the switch as it were,” he said.
Wheeler also asked about the reasoning behind enshrining the new board’s budget in the city charter, which he said made it “extraordinary” amongst all city programs. Bradley responded that he had noticed a trend in other cities where oversight boards had started off well-funded after public pressure. But as that pressure diminished, so did the funding, and, ultimately, the public’s faith in the system. Placing language on funding in the city charter would protect the board should the current movement’s momentum fade.
Plus, he noted, the Council would have a way to reduce the budget: They would just need to also cut the budget of the police bureau.