Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Portland were back in federal court on Friday hoping to convince a federal judge to accept an amendment to the 2014 settlement agreement governing the police bureau’s use of force.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ultimately accepted the proposed amendment.
The new section lays out Portland’s obligations to come back into compliance with the settlement agreement after the city fell out in spectacular fashion in 2020 with more than 6,000 documented uses of force during racial justice protests and little internal scrutiny.
As part of the amended agreement, the city has about seven months to adopt a police body-worn camera program, no small feat given the still sticky and unresolved question of what policies will regulate those cameras.
In January, negotiators for the city and the Portland Police Association — the union representing the rank and file officers — punted the policy question for a later date so the two sides could finalize a union contract after more than a year of negotiations. The city and DOJ want to limit when officers can view their body camera footage after use of force incidents. The police union wants officers to be able to view the footage before writing their reports, a practice known as pre-review.
The union has argued that 20 of the 22 largest cities in the country allow for pre-review. The DOJ has said common practice does not make best practice.
While negotiations between the city and union over body camera policies remain ongoing, Friday’s decision codifies the Justice Department’s right to intervene should they not like the outcome of those discussions. If they don’t like what they see, the federal government will take the city back to federal court.
The newly added section also gives the city 60 days to begin identifying lieutenants and higher-ranking leadership who failed to properly train and oversee the use of force during the 2020 racial justice protests.
Testifying for the Mental Health Alliance, retired senior scientist Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research Jonathan Brown said after reviewing the bureau’s use of force data, he found the use of force against people with mental illness had increased in both frequency and severity since 2017.
“I was surprised to discover that the number of applications and the severity of force used in force events involving mentally impaired citizens has been rising quickly and steadily over the last four years,” Brown wrote.
Finally, the amended section requires the police bureau to hire a civilian dean to oversee the training division curriculum. Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said in court on Friday that the hiring process is already underway and that they are looking for someone with experience in adult education.
Speaking last, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she was initially giddy at the prospect of a civilian dean but she expressed deep skepticism at the bureau’s hiring process and suggested it be scrapped and started anew.
“Needless to say I was very excited about the potential to actually search…for an educator that actually could change behavior,” Hardesty told the court. “I was appalled to learn that the people who are on the committee to interview this new training dean, four of them were from the current dysfunctional training division. If you have four officers who are already training people in ways that we find unconstitutional and racially unjust, why the heck would we have them be the majority of the interview panel?”
A number of potential hurdles loomed over Friday’s hearing, including the recent discovery that a training for Portland police officers included incorrect guidance, as well as a meme encouraging police violence against leftists. And in early April, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed temporarily pausing the Portland Commission on Community-Engaged Policing, a federally mandated advisory group, raising questions about how committed the city is to the group.
Presiding over a courtroom packed with community members and city officials, Simon engaged with community members and attorneys Friday on topics ranging from comparisons between PCCEP and the flawed notion of equality portrayed in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the legal precedent for a federal court overruling a union contract, and the Jewish concept of justice.
Simon said he was optimistic overall and acknowledged that progress toward meeting the terms of the settlement agreement may not always be at the pace the public would like.
“I do think our backwards movement is and has been outweighed by forward movement,” Simon said. “Overall we are moving in a net forward direction.”
In an April 15 court filing, the U.S. DOJ said the inappropriate training slides should not prevent the adoption of the new amendment, which is limited in scope to address the factors that brought the city out of compliance with the settlement agreement.
Federal prosecutors with the DOJ civil rights division said the slides will be taken up during the next status conference scheduled for July.
“We will address the training materials in our next compliance assessment report,” the filing reads. “We have thus appropriately reserved our rights to seek additional remedies based on these materials.”
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon had previously hinted at appointing an independent monitor who would have more authority to enforce the settlement agreement, a step he said Friday he cannot take of his own accord and can only do if the Justice Department requests it. Simon said, along with the Albina Ministerial Alliance for Justice and the Mental Health Alliance, he thought a monitor would provide significant value.
Friday’s amendment also clears the way for the Department of Justice to formally endorse a transition plan from the current police oversight body, Independent Police Review, to the still-in-the-works oversight board approved by voters in 2020. According to the timeline laid out in the amendment, the oversight board won’t be fully functioning until at least 2025.
The two sides will be back in court on July 27 for a status hearing to determine if the city has successfully lived up to its obligations and come into compliance. If that happens, the city will need to stay in compliance for one year before the settlement agreement is dissolved.
Some community leaders appeared skeptical on Friday. Speaking on behalf of the Albina Ministerial Alliance for Justice and Police Reform, alliance co-chair Rev. LeRoy Haynes cautioned that “the city is not prepared for another George Floyd or controversial shooting.”
“It is not a matter of if but when that will happen,” Haynes said. “Portland needs security. It needs public safety. But security and public safety will not happen without police accountability.”