Portlanders were voting in overwhelming numbers Tuesday to replace the existing police oversight system with a new body empowered to discipline and even fire officers, a power currently reserved for the police commissioner.
Measure 26-217 would amend the city charter to create an independent police oversight board with members appointed by the Portland City Council. Once established, the new oversight board will have the power to investigate all deaths in custody, uses of deadly force, complaints of force causing injury, discrimination against protected classes and constitutional rights violations. The board would also be tasked with making recommendations on police policy and directives that the City Council — and not the Police Bureau — will get the final say on implementing.
“Eighty percent sends a very strong message that the community is ready for transformation when it comes to policing so I’m feeling really good about this ballot measure tonight,” City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who pushed to get the measure on the ballot, said shortly after initial returns.
The board won’t be in place immediately. In an interview before the election, Hardesty said before the board is fully up and running, a commission will have 18 months to figure out the details of how it will operate.
That commission will answer questions on term limits, how members are selected and diverse representation of experiences among the oversight members.
“So all those things are things that will be worked out,” Hardesty said.
Once details are complete, the new body will replace the current Independent Police Review system that provides guidance on police oversight.
Hardesty said similar proposals have failed in other cities because of a lack of political will to fully implement meaningful police oversight. But, she said, if the plan is approved by voters and enters the city charter, it will better withstand challenges.
“But putting a frame in the constitution means that elected leaders can’t change it on a whim when the political wind shifts somewhere else,” she said. “It will require voters to make any changes to the structure of the oversight board.”
All of that assumes the Portland Police Association, the union representing rank and file officers, agrees to the new oversight system in its contract, which is up for negotiation in January. Even before the measure passed, it was shaping up to be a major point of contention. Former PPA president Daryl Turner said anything that deals with discipline needs to be subject to union bargaining under Oregon’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act.
The union’s lawyer, Anil Karia, said city commissioners are making promises to voters they won’t be able to keep.
“The entirety of the existence of this board will be litigated,” he said.
But the city’s consistent steps to defund and dramatically reform the bureau also hit a hiccup Tuesday. Hardesty’s staunchest ally on City Council, Chloe Eudaly, was voted out of office and Mayor Ted Wheeler — who has balked at major budget cuts and insisted on retaining control of the bureau over Hardesty’s repeated demands that she take over as commissioner — led in early returns.
“It doesn’t change my outlook at all,” Hardesty said. “I am still committed to transforming policing in the city of Portland. I will either do it as the police commissioner or as just a city commissioner but I will continue to do the work that I came to city hall to do and the work that the public expects that I will continue to do.”