Portland leaders wasted no time on day one of negotiations with the city’s union for rank-and-file police on Wednesday, quickly moving to propose changes to officer discipline.
In discussions between the city and the Portland Police Association, Portland proposed consolidating all parts of the union’s contract dealing with discipline into one section, Article 20, including lower level “coaching” and corrective actions, up through demotion and termination.
Among the proposed changes, the city would like to remove a clause prohibiting the use of data in the Employee Information System – used to compile information about Portland Police Bureau officers’ work performance – for disciplinary actions.
Another city proposal would make it easier for officials to share information about significant public events which lead to misconduct investigations, even while an investigation is still pending.
“There is grave public concern related to some of these incidents so we want to have a discussion about the necessity that may require a public response by city officials during that investigatory process,” said Steven Schuback, an attorney hired by the city specifically for the police contract negotiations. “Until that investigatory process is concluded we can’t have any findings of fact. But at the same time, as a public entity representing the community, city officials need to be able to make some type of a response.”
The police union’s attorney, Anil Karia, said they will need time to review the proposals before being able to respond, but he said there needs to be caution when identifying officers prematurely.
“The public release of information about an individual’s name has very real ramifications for personal safety,” he said.
Karia went on to describe what he called an angry mob showing up at his house to vandalize his home to “intimidate me, my family, and my kids.” Images posted online showed graffiti and a broken window at Karia’s office.
2 nights ago, Portland Police Association lawyer's office vandalized with graffiti & broken windows. Last night -eve of resumption of police contract talks, people showed up outside PPA lawyer Anil Karia's home, harassing him and his family, he said. (office pix below:) (1/2) pic.twitter.com/xEbS87oohb— Maxine Bernstein (@maxoregonian) January 13, 2021
Voter-backed oversight board could be a sticking point, but that will come later
In November, Portlanders voted to approve a police oversight board to review fatal police shootings and use-of-force complaints. Getting to agreement on an oversight board is likely to be the most contentious topic in this round of union negotiations.
On Wednesday, negotiators for the city were clear about Portland’s stance: they said the city is free to use outside parties to review misconduct or discipline officers. Attorneys for the city suggested it may be possible to move forward with the current police contract without finalizing specifics around the new oversight board.
The police union has said those voter-backed changes must be approved in contract negotiations.
Schuback said it could take 18 months to get the board organized — and if union negotiations are necessary to approve elements of the voter-approved oversight board, that portion of the police union contract can be negotiated and modified later.
The Portland Police Association laid out its own priorities during the Wednesday’s afternoon negotiations. Karia and Portland Police Association President Brian Hunzeker focused on concerns about staffing, retention and improving policing culture and morale, perhaps hinting at where the two sides may have room to negotiate.
Karia repeated a common complaint from officers and bureau leadership that there is a staffing crisis in the city’s police force, and that the impacts are being felt far and wide, including declining morale and dangerously high response times to service calls.
“These contract negotiations are an opportunity to find those solutions,” Karia said. “Let’s focus on recruiting and retention. Let’s focus on our traditional interests at the bargaining table of competitive wages and benefits.”
At times Wednesday, the procedural chasms and historical tension dividing the two sides broke through the otherwise cordial discussions.
The city proposed eliminating a clause in the contract that prohibited leadership from using performance evaluations as a basis for discipline.
Karia forcefully disagreed, saying the current system works and that the proposed changes would alter the intent behind the performance evaluations.
“The purpose of the evaluation process...is to reward officers for the good work that they do and to highlight areas for improvement,” Karia said. “What we see here...is a weaponization of the performance evaluation process.”
After a brief back and forth, in keeping with the spirit of the day, the two agreed to move on.
“We’ll continue to reflect on the proposal,” Karia replied.
The meetings alternate between publicly open events hosted by the city and private sessions hosted by PPA. The next public meeting is February 10.