Portland City Council hopeful about new police union contract

By Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
Feb. 20, 2022 1 p.m.

Portland City Council struck a unified and optimistic tone Thursday, saying the city was heading in the right direction toward improving police accountability. Their message came despite community pushback around a proposed contract with the city’s police union.

“There are several things that the DOJ civil rights division is mandating that we do. There are several things that we as a council have put in place, and there are several things that voters have put in place,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said during Thursday’s City Council to hear public testimony on the contract. “And all those things … are all moving towards what I think is going to be a much more fair and equitable and transparent police force.”

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Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler touted the negotiations as a team effort.

“We got a lot accomplished in this contract,” Wheeler said. “The many changes we obtained in this contract lay the foundation for our work in the future as we continue to develop the best and most forward-thinking police bureau.”

In a departure from past police union negotiations, each commissioner’s office had a representative on the bargaining team, something Steven Schuback, the outside attorney hired to lead bargaining, described as “revolutionary.” Schuback said their presence ensured the city was speaking with a unified voice during negotiations.

The city had wanted the full contract process to be public, but state law requires terms of negotiations to be agreed to by both sides. The union would only agree to every other meeting being public. Despite the process and contract being imperfect, Hardesty said this year’s negotiations were an unmitigated success compared to the last round in 2016 when protesters stormed city hall, and police responded with multiple arrests and the use of pepper spray against protesters.

Police officers remove David Kif Davis from city hall during a protest over the Police union contract.

Police officers remove David Kif Davis from city hall during a protest over the Police union contract.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

“That day in October in 2016 was my motivation to run for this seat,” Hardesty said.

This time around, the city and union reached an agreement on a number of issues including retention, terms to expand Portland Street Response, clarification on how outside employment will be handled and a new discipline guide.

“A discipline guide is a completely new issue for bargaining,” Schuback said in a public question and answer forum last week. He called the guide a “paramount win” that, when combined with the new oversight board and state legislation, will lead to “pivotal change on how things are resolved in the long run.”

“There are times an employee needs to be fired, they have crossed the line,” Schuback said. “There are other times that an employee will remain working with us and we will make best efforts to keep that employee engaged, and give them all opportunities to grow and become better employees.”

City commissioners heard public testimony from community members and police accountability and civil rights activists displeased with the agreement.

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Dan Handelman, who runs the police watchdog group Portland Copwatch, said that while the contract contains some oversight improvements to allow for a community oversight board, the language is sufficiently vague as to allow the union room to challenge the city’s interpretation.

Handelman also criticized the discipline guide for only allowing an officer to be fired for racial bias if the incident involves aggravating circumstances or misuse of authority. He suggested under the new guide, the city still would not have been able to fire Sgt. Gregg Lewis, who in 2017 told a group of officers to “go out and shoot Black people” during a morning meeting days after a Portland police officer shot and killed 17-year-old Quanice Hayes. The City Council was forced to reinstate Lewis with back pay in 2019, fearing an arbitrator would overturn his termination.

The president of the ACLU of Oregon, Sandy Chung, told commissioners her organization did not support the new contract for a litany of reasons including restrictions on the new oversight board to change the discipline guide, the potential to hire more officers, limits on what officer discipline can be shared with the public, and officers who are under investigation still being able to see the names of complainants and witnesses against them.

“The minimal concessions made by the Portland Police Association is not worth over $56 million that the impact analysis projects this collective bargaining agreement will cost Portland taxpayers,” Chung said.

Chung also expressed skepticism that the contract is part of a broader incremental step towards improved accountability and reminded commissioners that activists in the city have been down this path before.

“This is not the first time that community members have brought forward concerns and the city and Portland Police Bureau have said that they would engage in change,” Chung said. “There is a real frustration that nothing much will come out of this process.”

A liaison officer with the Portland Police Bureau watches people at a rally organized by the Proud Boys, labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Portland, Ore., Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019.

The Portland Police Association has reached a tentative agreement on a new contract with the city of Portland.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Hours before the council met, the Portland Police Association announced that 96% of its members had voted to ratify the tentative contract between the police union and the city.

In a press release after the vote, Portland Police Association President Sgt. Aaron Schmautz said the union’s goal was to land on a contract that positions the bureau to meet its recruitment and retention goals.

“This contract demonstrates the membership’s firm commitment to a fair and balanced system of accountability, an excitement to expand the street response model into Portland’s public safety infrastructure, and further engagement on body-worn cameras,” the press release said.

The two sides were unable to come to agreement on body-worn camera policies and have agreed to continue bargaining the issue independent of the rest of the contract.

While the city has touted the discipline guide as a major victory, at least some Portland police officers similarly view it as a win.

“One of the chief complaints from PPA members about discipline is that it is very unpredictable,” one member who was not authorized to speak on the record told OPB.

The officer said the formal discipline guide should hold both the city and police officers more accountable and reduce arbitration. The officer also said they still hear concerns among colleagues about body-worn camera policies and the specifics of the new oversight board, but that this contract is viewed as a net positive.

City Council will vote on the contract Feb. 24. The new contract expires in 2025 when negotiations will begin anew.

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