Shortly after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, Oregon lawmakers made ambitious promises to change the state’s criminal justice system and policing standards.
At the state level, political leaders have had some success ushering new laws through a typically gridlocked legislative body. But at the local level, lawmakers have struggled to make good on a policy agenda formulated in the midst of a nationwide uprising.
Whether the steps taken so far mark the beginnings of the transformative evolution promised at the height of last summer’s protests or are incremental changes around the edges of a broken system depends on your perspective. But what is clear is that no one believes the conversation around racism and the criminal justice system is finished.
“This past year, Portland has worked to center equity and anti-racism and begin the process of meaningfully reforming our public safety system,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder.
Wheeler’s critics, meanwhile, say he represents the plodding status quo, becoming thoroughly waylaid by protests and devoting more time and energy to concerns over broken windows than addressing civil rights abuses perpetrated by the police department he leads.
At the state level, law enforcement has helped shape changes taking place. Though, police say many are leaving the profession and worry whether new laws and heightened scrutiny will affect recruiting and public safety in the long term.
Still, for all the debates and questioned intentions around policing, officers across the state have killed 16 people since Floyd’s murder last May.
“Unfortunately, I don’t even know if we’re pointed in the right direction yet,” said Shannon Wight, deputy director of Partnership for Safety and Justice, a Portland-based nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.
New state laws
Since last summer, Oregon lawmakers have been steadily passing legislation aimed at improving police oversight and accountability across the state.
A month after Floyd’s murder, during a special legislative session, the Oregon Legislature passed six bills including a ban on chokeholds, restrictions on an arbitrators’ leeway to overturn police discipline decisions, and a law requiring officers to prevent or report misconduct by colleagues.
In the current legislative session, lawmakers have advanced a dozen policing bills, which have enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Among the bills working their way through the Legislature are laws establishing a standardized background check process, requiring law enforcement agencies to report evidence of racist behavior to the district attorney, and for police departments to submit data to the FBI’s use-of-force database.
Still, civil rights activists like the Rev. LeRoy Haynes, co-chair of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, said this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and state lawmakers aren’t going far enough.
“When you compare it to what has been done in the past, it is a significant amount of bills coming out of the state Legislature,” he said. “But compared to some of the other states, it’s still very, very moderate.”
Haynes pointed to other states that have focused on removing qualified immunity for officers as an example of what he’d like to see in Oregon.
Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, who chairs the House subcommittee on equitable policing, has been one of the driving forces in passing the slate of policing legislation this past year. She agreed with Haynes that more work remains, and urged Oregonians to continue demanding more from their representatives. But she also said she’s trying to bring 90 other legislators along with her, and that’s a tall order.
“Somebody else, maybe they’re more effective, they should give it a shot,” Bynum said. “But nobody else has been able to do this for 40 years.”
Even before Floyd was killed, voters in some parts of the state indicated they wanted a new approach to criminal justice. Voters in Multnomah and Wasco counties elected progressive district attorneys who vowed a more holistic approach in prosecutions and more oversight of law enforcement. Along with Deschutes County, the three prosecutors have served as a more progressive contingent to the state’s district attorneys.
In the last month, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt’s office has twice turned to outsiders to participate in the process of preparing, and ultimately presenting, police deadly force investigations to grand juries.
Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said legislation passed last summer changing how officers are allowed to use deadly force was behind his decision to turn an investigation over to the state attorney general in May.
Portland struggles with changes
Last June, as thousands took to the streets demanding a dramatic rethinking of criminal justice in Portland, Mayor Wheeler released an action plan outlining his commitments to changing policing. But Wheeler and the City Council’s follow-through has been inconsistent.
“The city had an opening,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “There was an energy, there was a willingness for people to get behind and support a movement. And the city not only backed away from all of the stuff that they initially agreed to, but they’re actually going backward.”
Wheeler had initially pledged to support a variety of initiatives out of his control, ranging from abolishing qualified immunity at a federal level to proposals put forward by lawmakers of color in the state Legislature.
Wheeler also said he would redirect $15 million from the city police budget to support communities of color and policing alternatives like Portland Street Response, a group of mental health specialists who can respond to people in crisis. Wheeler and City Council also dissolved the school resource officer program, transit police, and the gun violence reduction team. The mayor pledged to fundamentally reshape the city’s approach to gun violence — an area where the city’s Black residents said officers frequently profiled and harassed them.
Delivery on those promises has been mixed. The police budget was cut by $15 million, but only $10 million could be reallocated. City Council directed that money plus $5 million from elsewhere in the city budget to a number of initiatives including tribal relations, social equity grants and a Black youth leadership development program championed by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. The $1 million set aside for that program hasn’t been spent yet.
In the current budget cycle, the bureau faces an additional $3 million cut. Wheeler, who is also the police commissioner, made clear in a KOIN interview this week that while the Portland Police Bureau’s budget was facing further cuts this year, the full reimagining of criminal justice that the public has demanded almost exactly a year ago is not happening.
“We were able to use some federal funds to help support the police bureau,” Wheeler told KOIN. “What I want the public to know is that $3 million reduction comes out of a budget that’s about $300 million in total. There will be no reduction in police officers on the street.”
Wheeler and City Council have reversed course on other promises made during 2020 demonstrations as well. Less than a year after disbanding the gun violence reduction team, Portland police will soon have two teams devoted to gun violence. The Enhanced Community Safety Team, stood up in February, is made up of officers and detectives devoted to investigating shootings. Wheeler also directed the police bureau to create a Focused Intervention Team, a uniformed team of officers devoted to proactively addressing gun crimes and interrupting cycles of violence, a mission nearly identical to the recently abolished GVRT.
The reconstitution of the gun violence reduction team’s functions within the police bureau came after a long-building rise in gun violence surged in 2020.
Almost $5 million of PPB’s reallocated budget went to Portland Street Response, which started operating in February with a pilot program fielding calls in the Lents neighborhood. But after agitating in January for the program to speed up its roll-out, Wheeler said he wanted to slow it down. With the help of newly elected Commissioners Dan Ryan and Mingus Mapps, Wheeler stalled funding the full program until the City Council receives proof the current model is successful, risking Portland Fire and Rescue’s plan to take the program citywide by March 2022.
“It seems like several of the commissioners are committed to avoiding the conversation, running away from it, not embracing the complexity this conversation requires,” Singh said.
Singh said for the past year city leaders have resisted police accountability and spent more time lamenting vandalism related to small-scale protests than talking about the underlying issues that led to protests in the first place. The city’s reluctance to change, he said, comes even as a federal judge held Portland in contempt for police officer actions at summer 2020 protests, and as the U.S. Department of Justice says the city appears to lack a fundamental understanding of constitutional rights.
“There is nothing more oppressive, or marginalizing, or insulting to any community than to say their reality doesn’t exist,” Singh said. “And that’s essentially what the mayor is saying to everyone right now that ‘your experience of police violence, it doesn’t exist. It did not happen.’”
At least one initiative would represent a substantial change to police oversight and accountability in the city, if it can be implemented.
Leveraging momentum from last year’s protests, Hardesty pushed to get a new independent police oversight board put on last November’s ballot. That passed in a landslide, with more than 80% of the vote.
Progress implementing the new board has been slow going, however. The police union has said it violates collective bargaining obligations and has promised to fight it. The measure called for a commission to spend 18 months figuring out how the board will work, and answering questions like how members would be selected. Almost six months since voters approved the board, that commission has yet to be established.
Investment in police
Other parts of Oregon have firmly resisted calls to transform policing and improve oversight.
Bend City Council recently approved Police Chief Mike Krantz’s requested budget increase to add, among other things, a school resource officer. The city is also suing a racial justice activist in an attempt to recover fees for a records request seeking records on how police and other city leaders reacted to the Black Lives Matter movement last year.
And in Clackamas County, voters recently approved an increased sheriff’s office levy raising the agency’s budget to an estimated $22-25 million per year. The increased funds will be used to maintain current staffing levels and jail capacity, increase mental health care capacity at the jail, add internal affairs investigators and implement a body-worn camera program.
While activists say elected officials are dragging their feet, many in law enforcement say elected officials are moving too fast and crushing officer morale.
“It’s significantly worse to be a police officer than it was a year ago,” said Dan Thenell, general counsel of the Oregon State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. “It’s exponentially harder. … The morale is horrible. People want to leave. They don’t want to be police officers anymore.”
Jim Ferraris is the former president of the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police. He was police chief in Woodburn and held senior roles at departments in Portland and Salem. He questions whether calls to defund the police were fully thought through.
“What’s happening now around the country, communities are starting to realize that’s a mistake and they’re starting to call for police to be refunded,” he said. “Was there a plan, was there a bridge until funds could be diverted to support mental health treatment, or drug and alcohol treatment, or homelessness to alleviate the need for the police to respond to behaviors coming out of those issues?”
Despite few police departments in the state actually cutting their budgets, Ferraris said he worries about money taken away from police departments without fully developed alternatives.
“Fund mental health properly. Fund drug and alcohol treatment properly. Fund housing alternatives properly,” Ferraris said. “And if those social issues are addressed appropriately, we’ll see the criminality ... diminish.”
The commitments elected leaders made last summer weren’t isolated to law enforcement.
At the end of last July, after a month of street clashes between protesters and federal law enforcement, a group of Black-led organizations unveiled an extensive set of policy solutions that go well beyond police brutality to address systemic racism in areas like education, housing, health, transportation, economic development and community safety.
On education, Kali Thorne Ladd, executive director of Kairos PDX, said leaders from Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties have stayed involved and are making progress on equity goals, if slowly.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Thorne Ladd said. “You don’t dismantle 400-plus years of systemic racism overnight and certainly not in a year’s time. But I think progress is being made.”
While they “have a long way to go,” Thorne Ladd said, Clackamas County hired a staffer focused on equity, a positive step. In Multnomah County, leaders are looking at ways to incorporate more restorative justice initiatives into youth programs, a proven way to keep children out of the juvenile criminal justice system.
State lawmakers are considering three education bills which Thorne Ladd said are a critical step in the process.
Senate Bill 236 would prevent schools receiving state funds from expelling or suspending pre-school children. Ladd said bias against children of color often means those students are punished harshly for behavior that is treated as a normal part of development in their white classmates. The result of such an early, dehumanizing experience in a student’s education can have a lasting impact, she said.
Two other bills offer some protections to qualified teachers of color and declare education equity an emergency.
“The reason Reimagine Oregon has a focus on youth is what we see happening with adults and the police, starts young,” Thorne Ladd said, adding that changing young people’s mindsets will prevent future instances of police violence. Derek Chauvin — the former Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of murdering George Floyd — was a kid once too, she said.
“What did he believe about the humanity of Black people that enabled him to have his knee on [Floyd’s] neck nonchalantly for nine minutes?” she asked. “If we do not talk about racism and equity in our schools then there will be more Derek Chauvins with their knee on the neck of Black youth and Black adults.”
On the public safety front, Reimagine Oregon said state and county elected officials have also remained engaged and made steady progress. Multnomah County and Metro, the regional government, have contributed to the Reimagine Safety project, a Black-led workgroup to develop policing alternatives and policy proposals. Washington County has also made a financial commitment to the project.
As Oregon reflects this week on the progress in changes to the criminal justice system, people seeking change say they’re worried that white backlash and weakened wills from politicians could stall needed changes.
Since Republican Rep. Tootie Smith took over as the Clackamas County chair, that county board has been less engaged with Reimagine Oregon, said Lamar Wise, a political coordinator who has been helping lead Reimagine Oregon’s public safety initiatives.
Portland city officials have also been less reliable.
“The bureau directors and staff have been awesome,” Wise said. “But we’re still wanting to engage more with the mayor’s office.”
City Commissioners Ryan, Carmen Rubio and Hardesty have been involved to varying degrees “but I would still hesitate to say it’s been a deep set of conversations that have happened there,” Wise added, crediting Rubio’s staff with expressing more interest in working together.
The city set aside $1.8 million for Reimagine Oregon to spend in support of the group’s policy goals.
The city’s budget office said conversations with Reimagine Oregon are ongoing, but no spending decisions have been made.
Portland city officials said they started from a much different place than other jurisdictions so while Clackamas County hired someone focused on equity, Portland already had multiple people in similar roles. Wheeler has been a regular presence at Reimagine Oregon meetings and his office said they are in constant communication with the many people leading the various Reimagine Oregon efforts.
Still, the extent to which he is substantively engaged is debated.
Wise said he knew some funds were included in Wheeler’s budget proposal, but as of Wednesday morning he was unaware of money being approved. There has been no communication with him or his fellow organizers, he said, noting he learned about the money from a news article.
“It seems like the city is on different pages when it comes to how to move forward with public safety,” Wise said. “I would love to see a unified voice from the city ensuring that Black, Indigenous, and people of color feel safe in the city. I think we’re still waiting for that to happen.”