Portland City Council’s plan to transition to a new police oversight board has been so chaotic, City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero informed the council and the U.S. Department of Justice on Monday that she will force the council to assume control of the Independent Police Review starting July 1.
“We never should have been put in this position,” Hull Caballero told OPB. “(A change to police oversight) was thrown onto a ballot. Council told voters it was ready for their consideration as voters. It was not and they knew it was not. And so now they’re looking at the auditor’s office to say, ‘you clean this up.’”
The city charter requires the auditor’s consent for many of her duties, including overseeing the Independent Police Review.
In her fiscal year 2022-23 budget request submitted last week, Hull Caballero said there is substantial risk IPR employees will leave their jobs before a replacement board approved by voters in November 2020 is operational, forcing the auditor to reassign other staff to the oversight body. Hull Caballero said the city doesn’t have a credible plan to replace those employees, and she is worried about staff shortages in her office.
“I will immediately initiate procedures to move responsibility for IPR’s employees, budget, and operations to Council’s designated agency, effective July 1, 2022,” Hull Caballero wrote in a memo addressed to the Justice Department prosecutors overseeing the settlement agreement, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and the rest of city council
Some form of police oversight is required by the settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice, meaning any changes must be approved by federal prosecutors.
After little progress from the City Council toward the new board in the months following its passage, federal prosecutors stepped in earlier this month and laid out a transition timeline for the new oversight board. If everything goes as planned, the new oversight board wouldn’t assume its duties until at least 2025.
The Justice Department’s proposed timeline called for both the auditor and City Council to put forward transition plans earlier this month. The DOJ would then determine which plan was acceptable. If both plans were approved, City Council would choose which to use.
The two plans put forward are similar and give non-union employees a choice between staying in the auditor’s office once IPR’s work is completed or taking an equivalent position elsewhere in the city. The auditor proposed a similar transition option for unionized employees.
The plans differ on what to do with jobs if people leave IPR before the transition finishes. Under the city plan, there is no guarantee the jobs will continue to exist in the auditor’s office when the transition to the new board finishes.
“It is incredibly difficult to convince high-quality applicants to come work for the auditor’s office when their future is this question mark,” Hull Caballero said. “You’re going to have some job down the road. I don’t know many people who would sign up for that kind of a plan.”
What had initially been advertised to voters as an 18-month transition to a system where a civilian police oversight board would have the power to discipline and fire officers – something not possible under the current Independent Police Review – is shaping up to be closer to a five-year transition.
In response to a series of questions about the city’s transition plan and what agency would take over management of IPR, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s spokesperson Cody Bowman said, “We’re monitoring the situation closely and we’ll be in touch with further updates.”
In a statement emailed to OPB, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she has been transparent with voters since proposing the new oversight board. Hardesty said the 18-month timeline she discussed throughout the campaign only referred to a commission tasked with hashing out the inner workings of the new oversight board, and not the entire process to get the board up and running.
That contradicts statements Hardesty made to multiple news outlets in the run-up to the November 2020 election.
“When we overwhelmingly support this measure on November 3rd, in January we seat the commission that will do the additional work that’s necessary,” Hardesty told the Oregonian/OregonLive in an Oct. 13, 2020 interview. “At the end of that two years, we will have a new community oversight board that will be truly independent.”
Hardesty defended the lengthier timeline in her statement, saying the new oversight board represents a tectonic shift in how police are held accountable.
“We are not tinkering around the edges to try to patch up the previous broken system that has failed to provide almost any degree of accountability towards police,” she wrote. “Our current work is what system change and equitable policy development looks like.”
After reading the city’s final transition plan last week, however, Hull Caballero said waiting even longer for the DOJ to make their decision was contributing to the same inaction she has objected to all along.
“I was prepared to shepherd IPR for the 18 months Council said it needed to implement the board but cannot agree to a multi-year commitment by the Auditor’s Office under a plan I do not believe will work,” Hull Caballero said in a statement Monday. “Council’s unwillingness to effectively address the uncertainty over IPR’s future has been an unnecessary and burdensome distraction for my entire office, and more delay serves no one.”
Hull Caballero isn’t running for reelection in November, but she said IPR is a court-mandated function and if her replacement can’t fill vacancies, employees will have to be pulled from other audit departments to keep IPR functioning, hamstringing oversight in the city. In the long term, she thinks the city is intentionally trying to eliminate positions in the auditor’s office to weaken its oversight of power.
“This is how they retaliate,” said Hull Caballero, whose office found Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler had violated state election laws in 2020. “They get mad about stuff and ‘you’re not getting a dime.’ The only reason IPR has gotten so big is because the DOJ is saying ‘you need more investigators in IPR.’”