Think Out Loud

Portland City Council will decide voter changes to police oversight

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Nov. 14, 2023 12:16 a.m. Updated: Nov. 20, 2023 10:27 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Nov. 14

Portland City Hall, September, 2022.

Portland City Hall, September, 2022.

MacGregor Campbell / OPB


Portlanders passed a ballot measure in November 2020 to overhaul police oversight with more than 80% of the vote. And exactly how to do that is what the volunteer members of the Police Accountability Commission have been meeting for the better part of two years to do. That commission presented its findings and roughly 100-page report to the city council this summer. The city council will be voting Wednesday on whether to adopt a modified version of that PAC report and give the city attorney the authority to decide what will be submitted to the DOJ.

The federal agency must ultimately approve elements for how a new Community Board for Police Accountability will work. That’s because the city is still subject to a federal settlement to address DOJ findings that officers used excessive force on people experiencing mental illness. That agreement included changes to a variety of police policies including the process for investigating officer misconduct. Dan Handelman is a co-founding member of Peace and Justice Works, and a member of the PAC. He joins us to provide an overview of the process, his perspective and what comes next.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. In 2020, Portland voters approved a ballot measure to completely overhaul police oversight in the city. It was an overwhelming win: 82% of voters approved the measure. In the years since, volunteer members of the Police Accountability Commission had been meeting to recommend the nitty gritty details of how the new system should work. They presented their findings in a 100-page report to the City Council earlier this summer. The council will vote tomorrow on a heavily modified version of those recommendations. The system will eventually have to be approved by the Federal Department of Justice. Dan Handelman is a longtime police accountability activist and one of the members of the volunteer commission. He joins us now. Welcome back to the show.

Dan Handelman:  Thank you very much, Dave.

Miller:  So let’s start with how we got here. As I mentioned, in 2020 Portland voters overwhelmingly said we’re going to change the way police oversight works. What were the main provisions, sort of, the skeleton of the system that voters approved?

Handelman:  The basic idea is that there would be a civilian-run oversight board where the community members, who are part of that board, hire the director of the office that’s going to have the investigators and do the day to day work of making sure that complaints are investigated. And then those community members would be making the decisions about whether the officers were in and out of policy and then imposing discipline where it was appropriate.

MillerHow is what you’ve just described different from the status quo with Independent Police Review and a Citizen’s Review Committee, that sort of alphabet soup that we’ve had for a number of years?

Handelman:  Yeah, the Independent Police Review is an office that takes in complaints and they only investigate about 10% of the complaints that get investigated. The rest of them are investigated by internal affairs. So, one of the big changes is the idea to have community or non-police investigators running the investigation so that people don’t find out that a police officer is investigating the complaint against other police officers.

The other thing that’s really huge is what I said a minute ago. That the community members on the board get to hire the director. Then they get to hold that director accountable and fire them if they want to and then hire another one. Right now, the community-run Citizen Review Committee is underneath the auspices of the Independent Police Review. They have very limited authority. Basically, all they do is hear appeals of police misconduct, not making the final decision about whether the officer should be punished or not. That’s still left up to the chief of police and the police commissioner in the current system.

Miller: What about what kinds of cases would even get to this new system as opposed to the current Independent Police Review? My understanding is that right now, say if an officer kills someone, you know, the most high profile kinds of cases, that wouldn’t even go to the Independent Police Review. Am I right about that, first of all?

Handelman:  Yes, that is correct. And that’s both because of the way the system was designed and because that’s part of the contract with the Portland Police Association. But in 2010, they added the ability for the IPR director or designee to run out to the scene of where the shooting incident happened and watch the investigation going on, to make sure that it’s going appropriately. And they can look over the shoulder of the internal affairs people as they interview the officers so they can monitor the investigation. But they’re not allowed to investigate it.

MillerWill that be different under the new system?

Handelman:  The charter says that one of the main things that this board’s gonna investigate are shootings and deaths in custody and also any kind of bias against a community member based on their protected class, and any other kind of constitutional violations. And then, I should add Dave, that it says, “and anything else that the board deems appropriate or is written in city code.” So I guess I want to come back to that point when we’re talking more about the new proposal.

MillerBut this is a good time, though, for us all to just have a good understanding about the power that the police union, the Portland Police Association, has going forward in terms of how the system will work. Do they have any vote or ability to say, “No, we are not going to accept this kind of citizen oversight?”

Handelman:  Well, allegedly, they can’t say no to the new system because of a law that Portland had passed through the legislature shortly after the ballot measure was passed that said they can’t negotiate about whether or not there’s going to be an oversight system. But still their rights remain to negotiate their working conditions, which includes who’s going to investigate, how it’s going to get investigated and how discipline is imposed. So there are parts of the charter and the proposal from the Police Accountability Commission that they will probably insist on bargaining on. And it’s written into the charter that that has to be negotiated.

What the City Council is voting on this Wednesday at two o’clock, technically, is giving the City Attorney[’s Office] authority to negotiate with the Police Association and their sister organization, the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association - which the community doesn’t talk about a lot but that’s the lieutenants and the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice fits into this because they ordered the City to take the ballot measure, institute the changes, and then change the 2012 U.S. Department of Justice settlement agreement to match whatever the new oversight system is going to do. And so that’s the main impetus for why the City Council rushed this onto their agenda the week before Thanksgiving. They have 60 days from the time the PAC gave their recommendations until they have to give the DOJ what those changes will look like.

Miller:  So let’s turn to some of the major differences between what the commission that you were a part of put forward and what is actually going to be voted on tomorrow, starting with the system for selecting members of the new commission. What did you put forward? And where does it stand right now in terms of what the City Council is considering?

Handelman:  I’m going to just start by giving a little background. There were 20 members of the Commission. We all came from very different backgrounds and life experiences and we unanimously approved our proposal, by consensus, to put forward to the City. The main concern we heard back from some people on the City Council is that we put too much detail into the code, that doesn’t really belong in there. And we should really let the new board decide these things. So we left a kind of an opening where it said, “The new board may appoint a nominating committee for the new members of the board as they move forward.” We set up a plan for the first set of nominees in what’s called our “Transition Plan” but, going forward, they would set up a nominating committee and they could work on those details.


The City rewrote that section and inserted that, on the nominating committee, there will be a nominee from the Chief of Police, a representative of the Portland Police Association and a representative of the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association.

Miller:  What’s wrong with that from your perspective?

Handelman:  Well, I mean, this is a board that’s supposed to be independent. That’s one of the things that’s underscored in the charter. That was underscored. When I say “the charter” that’s the result of that ballot measure that was voted in by 82% of the voting public. So it says, “It’s going to be independent and will not be interfered with by any other city agency.” Well, the Portland Police Bureau is a city agency for one thing. And these board members are going to be judging police officers on whether or not they violated policy. And having people who are essentially representing the officers who are being investigated presents a conflict of interest, I think. And it definitely goes against the spirit, if not the letter, of what the voters wanted.

Miller:  Another provision you included was a position known as a “complaint navigator.” What is that? What was your plan?

Handelman:  We did a lot of research to put together our packet, Dave, and we did not find anywhere else in the country where they have this. In the current system when you get all the way through, filing your complaint, having it investigated, and then an outcome is presented to you where it says that the officer was not out of policy, you can appeal. And at that point, you’re offered an appeals process advisor, somebody to help you figure out how to file your appeal, tell you what the system’s going to work and how it’s going to go, when you sit in front of the Citizen Review Committee. But we realized that one of the things that would make it a better, more community friendly, system is to put such a person in place right at the beginning. So that when you call into the office, you’re talking to the complaint navigator instead of just an investigator who is going to jump right in and start asking you questions about what your complaint is.

The City rewrote that part to say that complaint navigators will be assigned no later than when the Board staff decides to conduct a full investigation. And if you’ve ever gone through any kind of bureaucracy, but especially something like this where you believe you’ve been harmed by police. And if you have to wait and you have to enter that system and give your initial statement without somebody helping you and telling you how to do it, they’re gonna lose a lot of people by not involving that complaint navigator earlier than that.

Miller: Another change, as I understand it, between what you, the Commission, put forward and what City Council is considering now has to do with how appeals would work. What did you put forward and what are commissioners voting on?

Handelman:  So again, I’m gonna give you a little background of how we got to where we are in the City of Portland. Initially there was no oversight system for the police. In the early 1980s, there was a ballot measure and they voted to put a police oversight system in place that was technically City Council. It was called the Portland Internal Investigations Auditing Committee. All they did was they heard appeals from people who didn’t like the outcome of their investigation. Then when the Independent Police Review was created in 2001, the Citizen Review Committee, all they were doing was hearing appeals about people who didn’t like the outcomes of their investigations. And you talked before about the alphabet soup.

So right now we have this really complicated system. It’s not worth trying to explain in the time we have. But it includes the Citizen Review Committee, the Independent Police Review, Internal Affairs, a police review board that’s inside the police bureau, and when you’re a community member, you just want to go through one system. So we put everything under this new Board. The intake is done there, the investigation is done there and then there would be the ability, after the Board has a hearing to decide whether or not the officer violated policy, to have an appeal, which is a 40 year history here in the City of Portland. That is a right established for people filing complaints.

We also added that if the body of the Board, the staff, or the Board itself dismisses your complaint early on, you could appeal that. So there’s at least two kinds of appeals. And the City cut out the appeal after the findings are made. That is something that’s been in place for 40 years. There’s actually no mention of it anymore. It’s a 40-year, as I say, precedent just thrown out the window.

Miller:  What’s your explanation for all of these changes? And there are more changes which we don’t have time to get into now. But we’ve gone over some of the more high profile ones, I think some of the ones that you think are most significant. But how do you explain this politically? What do you think happened?

Handelman:  Well, I’m glad you brought up the word “political.” The known author of this document that we’re looking at on Wednesday is the City Attorney’s Office. And as I said, technically, it is a resolution going out to the city council on Wednesday, giving them the authority to fix that City Code proposal and negotiate with the DOJ and the PPA, Portland Police Association, without coming back to the City Council. They’re trying to authorize it so that the unelected city attorney can do what they want. And I think that some of what happened here is that the City Attorney’s Office cleaned out a lot of things we wrote into our proposal. And there’s not gonna be a full discussion by the City Council. They asked for a 30-day period after Wednesday’s hearing, for people to write in their comments. But they didn’t put in that the City Attorney has to come back to City Council to vote on it. So it’s very political and it’s very unrepresentative because we, the public, will be able to say whatever we want but the City Attorney can write whatever they want.

Miller:  In the biggest picture, the widest view here, I’m curious, whatever the details of the new system are when it’s finally up and running, how will you decide that it’s a good system or not? How will you decide that it’s working?

Handelman:  Regardless of what happens with the code?

Miller: No, I mean, all the aspects of the ultimate system are there. Still, we don’t know what they’re going to be. So I’m just trying to think about the biggest picture here. If a complaint is made, it’s investigated, someone is disciplined or not. I’m just curious what your metric is for a good system of police oversight, stripped down - what it looks like and what it means in practice?

Handelman:  Well, I think the basic issue is whether or not the community trusts it. And I know, there are a lot of people out there who are concerned right now that the police have a lot on their hands. And none of us on the Commission deny that. Nobody denies that. The police have a lot on their hands right now. But that doesn’t give them free rein to act outside of their policies without any scrutiny. And if you have a system like the one we already have, where there’s police involvement on any level, other than advising the Board, “This is what our policies are,” so that they’re making decisions based on what the police are supposed to do, people are going to be skeptical of it. And the people who need it most, those people who have been harmed by the police or the survivors of people who have been shot and killed, aren’t going to even want to file complaints.

So I guess the main thing to look for…I believe they left, in the code, a satisfaction survey whether or not the people who use the system trust it, whether or not people are actually going to use it, and whether there are going to be outcomes that show that these investigations are taking misconduct seriously.

Miller:  Dan Handelman, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.

Handelman:  Thank you, Dave.

Miller:  Dan Handelman is one of the members of the City’s Police Accountability Commission. Tomorrow the City Council is going to be voting on a resolution to move forward to let the City Attorney bargain on the details of the new system of police oversight with both the Police Union, the Portland Police Association as well, eventually, the Federal Department of Justice.

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Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Dan Handelman’s last name. OPB regrets the error.