The Oregon Legislature inched closer Monday to implementing a sweeping set of laws that would loosen the grip police unions have on oversight and discipline in the state.
Senate Bill 621 eliminates the requirement for cities to collectively bargain with police unions if they wish to implement a voter-approved oversight board with authority to discipline officers. The bill is the first in a series of three that Senate Democrats hope to pass tackling police accountability.
The bill passed with bipartisan support Monday, with 20 Senators voting in favor and seven against.
Currently, the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act requires cities to negotiate with unions for any changes to how members are disciplined.
The narrow carve-out created by the bill only applies to law enforcement and only to boards approved by voters on or after July 1, 2020. It applies to cities across the state but was written at the request of Portland city officials hoping to implement the new police oversight board passed by voters in November.
The Portland Police Association, the union representing rank and file officers, filed a grievance with the Portland Police Bureau two days after the election and promised to fight the oversight board. Without this legislation, the proposed oversight board likely would go before an outside arbitrator where, despite overwhelming public support, its prospects are very much uncertain.
“An arbitrator will look at past decisions made and rule based off of those,” explained Darren Golden, who is lobbying for the bill on behalf of the Real Police Accountability PAC, an organization set up to help pass Portland’s new oversight board. “Absent any ruling that supports the implementation of a board like this, which has never happened, the arbitrator will rule against the board, therefore making the community’s 81% vote in November null and void.”
Portland Democratic Sen. Lew Frederick, who has sponsored multiple police oversight bills this session, said critics who claim law enforcement already effectively police themselves are ignoring decades of failed promises and the videos, reports and basic evidence of the recent past.
“The bills before you today provide a path for true citizen involvement in the decisions that affect their lives,” Frederick said in Mar. 9 testimony before the Senate Committee on Judiciary. “A path that says excessive use of force will be evaluated. That the deaths, broken bones and broken families created when excessive force is used will not be dismissed as collateral damage, the expected cost of some war in the neighborhoods of our Oregon.”
Frederick said his constituents voted for change “and frankly, we should support that change.”
Testifying on behalf of the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs, Michael Selvaggio said the city of Portland is trying to gain an unfair advantage in the bargaining process through the new police oversight board.
“One of the core premises in public bargaining is that both parties have to bargain in good faith,” Selvaggio said. “And what we have here is the city placing at least two proposals on the table dealing with this entity while at the same time going down to Salem and asking the Legislature to let them circumvent that table entirely. So I don’t know how you could spin that as bargaining in good faith.”
In Senate testimony, Selvaggio also argued that this move would undermine organized labor more broadly, an assertion multiple representatives from other labor unions contest.
“I wanna be as clear as possible. That is not an attack on organized labor,” said Lamar Wise, political coordinator for Oregon AFSCME, a union representing about 33,000 mostly public sector workers, including some frontline healthcare workers at Oregon Health and Science University some nurses in the state.
He said healthcare workers must meet an “extremely high” standard of care as part of their union agreements.
“And we would argue that that same standard should be with any work sector that can take someone’s life or would have responsibility over someone’s life,” Wise said.
The Oregon chapter of the Service Employees International Union, representing 85,000 people including health care workers, nursing home workers and home care workers, also submitted testimony supporting the legislation.
Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Gresham, speaking moments before the vote, said he supported review boards and holding officers accountable, but echoed PPA’s complaints.
“I’m concerned, based on the information I have, that this is a current discussion of bargaining between the city of Portland and the Portland police union,” Gorsek said, adding that he wasn’t sure yet how he would vote. “I don’t like it when cities and counties bring things to the Legislature to circumvent what’s going on at the local level.”
Frederick responded that Portland voters approved the new board before union negotiations began. Gorsek then voted yes.
Other oversight bills
On Wednesday, the Senate is scheduled to vote on another bill aimed at strengthening police oversight boards. SB 204 expands the definition of “criminal justice agency” to include citizen review boards. The change clears the path for those bodies to be able to access the Law Enforcement Data System, or LEDS, a state-run database for warrants, protection orders, stolen property, criminal histories and other investigative files.
Currently, independent oversight boards like Portland’s Independent Police Review must request those records from the Portland Police Bureau. That hurdle ultimately leaves IPR beholden to the bureau for investigative records which are often turned over with redactions.
“Direct access to information at the time my investigators need it will ensure that all evidence has been collected and considered,” Portland city Auditor Mary Hull Caballero told the Senate judiciary committee. “As anyone who’s done a keyword search knows, the investigator is best positioned to recognize documents that are most relevant to her investigation.”
Finally, a bill intended to limit binding arbitration is winding its way through the senate.
Under most union contracts, police officers can challenge disciplinary decisions to an outside arbitrator whose rulings are binding. SB 613 creates a path for the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, the organization that trains and certifies police officers in the state, to modify or vacate an arbitrator’s decision in the case of excessive use of force.
That bill is still being considered by the Senate judiciary committee and has not been scheduled for a vote.
For bills that make it out of committee, Golden said he expects they will pass in the full Senate.
“They’re good bills,” he said. “The lack of push back from Republicans shows that these are bipartisan issues. Negative policing has obviously impacted Black and brown people at a much higher rate, but policing also is known to impact those who are poor. Policing often has been a class issue.”
Even if the bills make it out of the Senate, their future is still uncertain. Once out of the Senate, they would join a bevy of other policing legislation being worked on in the House, where Republicans are using parliamentary stall tactics to drag the lower body to a near standstill.