In October 2020, after a summer of racial justice protests, Mayor Ted Wheeler agreed to create a truth and reconciliation commission to address the Portland Police Bureau’s historic mistreatment of communities of color.
More than two years later, that program has yet to be realized. A recent investigation from the city auditor’s office found that the process to hire a firm to help oversee the commission’s work violated city policy. Auditors found that the city’s Community Safety Division, which is overseen by Mayor Ted Wheeler, had attempted to circumvent a competitive contractor selection process. Instead, the city directly awarded the job to a company called TrustLab that has close ties with the Portland Police Bureau.
“We found it especially troubling that [the city] avoided an open and competitive process for selecting a contractor to help set the course for rebuilding trust between the Police Bureau and community members,” reads the auditor’s report, released Wednesday morning.
Although city leaders decided to slow the project before inking the planned $200,000 contract with TrustLab, the auditor’s report highlights the kinds of shortcuts city leaders were willing to take to advance a controversial, high-stakes plan.
A plan to rebuild trust
The idea to establish a truth and reconciliation commission came from the Portland Committee for Community Engaged Policing, a group mandated by the 2014 settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the police bureau’s pattern of using excessive force against people in mental health crises.
It wasn’t a novel idea: Truth and reconciliation commissions have operated across the world to bring communities together in the wake of abusive leadership regimes and establish a clear historic record. Most notably, South Africa created a truth and reconciliation commission in 1995 to tell and amplify stories of those victimized by and responsible for the human rights abuses under apartheid. The restorative justice model has been used in the United States to document how the federal government irreparably harmed Native American families in Maine by forcing Native children into foster care and to address the impact of a Ku Klux Klan attack on racial justice protesters in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In Portland, the truth and reconciliation proposal was centered around a legacy of mistrust between Portlanders, particularly people of color, and the police – fueled by past officers’ past defense of Nazi ideology and by data showing racial disparities in traffic stops, among other things.
“The goals of the workgroup should include the creation of a historical record of past events, ownership of harm inflicted by PPB to specific communities, preservation of community member experiences, and a path to rectify past harm,” the Portland Committee for Community Engaged Policing detailed in its recommendation to Wheeler.
After Wheeler approved the proposal with a $250,000 budget in 2020, city staff set to work hashing out the details. Then-Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office took the lead, organizing meetings to gather public input on how the commission should operate and panel discussions with experts in truth and reconciliation work. While the work had the stated support of city commissioners and Portland Police leadership, it wasn’t universally accepted. In April 2022, Portland Police Association president Aaron Schmautz condemned the project for the very theory that it was based on: that Portland police are racist.
The union leader said that spending a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayer money on this process “would shock the conscience.”
A new company
Yet a few months later, a new company called TrustLab was negotiating a $200,000 contract with the city to help prepare the city to set up a truth and reconciliation commission. Among its listed leaders: Aaron Schmautz.
According to state business records, TrustLab registered as a business in May 2022. Led by former business consultant Matt McNair, TrustLab boasts a board of advisers saturated with law enforcement veterans and representatives. Four of the 10 listed advisers have specifically worked for the Portland Police Bureau, including Schmautz, former PPB assistant chief Dorothy Elmore, and former police union president Robert King.
A month after obtaining a business license, TrustLab sent the city’s Community Safety Division a proposal to help prepare Portland for a “truth and reconciliation process.” Under this proposal, the company wouldn’t be overseeing or orchestrating the actual work of a truth and reconciliation commission, but its staff would specifically focus on gathering input and perspective from the police bureau to help design the final commission. The work appeared geared toward ensuring Portland police felt comfortable with the project.
When looking to contract with an outside organization, it’s standard practice for the city to open the position to any interested groups to ensure a competitive selection process. There are, however, certain situations in which city officials can contract directly with an organization without inviting others to compete, such as when a contractor is uniquely fit to fulfill the city’s needs and if the contract is meant for a limited-term pilot program.
In TrustLab’s case, the city’s procurement department allowed the city an exemption from a competitive bidding process under the assumption that the work they were proposing was a pilot program. But this exception should not have been given, according to the auditor’s office. The auditor’s report notes that TrustLab has little, if any, history overseeing truth and reconciliation work. It also identified several other organizations that could have provided the city with identical work.
“TrustLab may have been [the city]’s top choice for the project, but the decision about which contractor to use should have been made through a competitive procurement process,” reads the report.
Gresham city Councilor Vince Jones-Dixon serves as the chair of TrustLab’s board of advisers. In an email to OPB, Jones-Dixon explained that TrustLab advisers and staff have been doing work to strengthen relationships between police and community for years in a volunteer capacity. More recently, the organization has been piloting a project that sets up one-on-one conversations between police officers and Black men for a nonprofit called Braver Angels. He added that TrustLab is already volunteering its time with the city helping facility meetings and listening sessions. The company is largely supported by private funding.
The city ultimately decided to cancel its partnership with TrustLab, before formal approval of the contract occurred, after pushback from several council offices. While it never moved forward, the indication that the city had intended to skip a competitive bid process to fast track the work of a pro-police company raised alarms for the auditor’s office.
“In this case, the process matters as much as the outcome,” City Auditor Simone Rede said in a press statement. “A competitive procurement for the Police Bureau’s Truth and Reconciliation project would have built trust that community members were seeking and saved City resources from the beginning.”
The auditor’s report places blame on both the city’s procurement office and the Community Safety Division for attempting to push through TrustLab’s contract without allowing other organizations to compete for the work. The report recommends that the city’s procurement department ensure that all staff in the Community Safety Division are trained on when a contract does not require a competitive bidding process and create a clearer definition of what kind of projects can be characterized as pilots.
“Without guidelines, City staff were confused about which projects should be considered pilots and ran afoul of rules,” the report reads.
The city’s chief financial officer, Mike Jordan, agreed with the auditor’s findings. In a letter to the auditor’s office, Jordan said that his office is working on releasing new guidance on contract procurement practices in June, and that staff will be retrained on those policies.
Other contract processes questioned
This isn’t the first time in the past year that the city has considered appointing a hand-picked vendor to run a pilot program that would impact the police bureau.
In December, OPB found that a close relationship between police leadership and a company called ShotSpotter had laid the foundation for the city to extend a noncompetitive contract to ShotSpotter to operate a gunshot detection pilot program. Wheeler backtracked that agreement in January, instead choosing to open the bidding process up to other companies.
Despite this reverse, the city auditor’s office is also investigating SpotSpotter for possibly violating city lobbying regulations by influencing the contracting process. According to Becky Lamboley, an elections officer in the auditor’s office, her office is also investigating if TrustLab violated lobbying rules in their planned contract work with the city.
The process to establish a truth and reconciliation commission in Portland didn’t end with TrustLab’s failed contract. In October, the city issued a request for proposals for outside groups to oversee a truth and reconciliation commission. Seven different groups applied before the application process closed in December. But on Jan. 5, the city’s chief procurement officer announced that the entire process to obtain contractors for this work was canceled.
Emails obtained through a public records request show building disagreement between city council officers on how a truth and reconciliation commission should be run. In previewing the request for proposal process to council staff in November, Hardesty policy adviser Andre Miller explained that, based on conversations with other cities that have attempted a truth and reconciliation process, he recommends that elected officials aren’t involved in selecting the final contractor. Instead, Miller said that community members on city advisory boards should select the group to oversee the project.
Stephanie Howard, a public safety adviser to Wheeler, told Miller that the mayor’s office objected to this plan.
“We insist that all council offices must be permitted to participate in the review/selection process and in the selection of a program manager,” Howard wrote.
Cody Bowman, a spokesperson for Mayor Ted Wheeler, said the bidding process was canceled in January because the city didn’t receive enough applications that met the program’s requests. Bowman said the city plans to reissue the request at an unknown future date.