Portland City Council unanimously approved a proposal Wednesday establishing guidelines for the city’s voter-approved police oversight system. Commissioners’ support came despite public criticism of the plan from both police accountability advocates and those who argue police discipline goes too far.
“I don’t think anyone got everything they wanted today,” said Commissioner Dan Ryan before casting his vote. “To me, that means we struck a good balance.”
The vote is one of many steps required before the city can cement a new police oversight system in city code.
That new system, which was championed by former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, was approved with 82% of voter support in November 2020. The measure directs the city to establish a new framework for investigating and penalizing police misconduct — one which removes police leadership from the oversight process. The intent was to keep police officers from investigating serious allegations against their coworkers in hopes of building public confidence in law enforcement.
Many who testified at Wednesday’s council meeting said they didn’t see the ballot measure’s intent fairly reflected in the city’s proposal.
“The fundamental flaw in our current accountability system is its lack of credibility with the people of Portland,” said Kenneth Lewis, an attorney who served on the volunteer commission appointed by council to inform the proposal. “By passing this proposal, the City Council will continue and indeed deepen that lack of credibility.”
The ballot measure directs the city to replace its Independent Police Review office with a new administrative department and create an oversight board to investigate police misconduct allegations. The measure explicitly prohibits people who have worked for a law enforcement agency and their immediate family members from serving on the board.
After the ballot passed, the City Council appointed 20 Portlanders to a committee — called the Police Accountability Commission — tasked with writing new city code language to delineate the power and structure of the new system. The commission’s final draft established a 33-person oversight board, appointed by the council, that holds investigatory meetings in public and can mandate discipline if an officer is found to have violated city policy.
But that proposal, sent to council members in September, was significantly pared down by council staff and city attorneys before reaching council chambers Wednesday.
The language approved Wednesday shrinks the size of the oversight board from 33 to 21, keeps most investigatory hearings out of the public eye, and reintroduces a level of police oversight. Specifically, the plan establishes a committee responsible for nominating oversight board members for council approval. That nominating committee must be composed of three law enforcement officials, along with a Portlander from each of the city’s four new geographic districts and two members of other city police accountability bodies.
The new plan also includes a clause barring “any individual who has an objective demonstrated bias for or against law enforcement” from serving on the board. It is not clear how that bias would be determined — or by whom.
Deputy city attorney Heidi Brown said the Police Accountability Commission’s proposal was “integral” to informing her office’s work on the plan approved by council Wednesday.
“We took their great work and used as much of it as we could,” Brown said..
She said her office removed several legal issues in the commission’s recommendation that would have made it difficult for the city to effectively discipline officers. Brown also said she believed that many parts of the groups’ proposal includes decisions that should be determined by the new oversight board once its members are appointed.
This explanation was panned by members of the Police Accountability Commission Wednesday.
Dan Handelman, a commission member and longtime police accountability advocate, rejected Brown’s suggestion that her proposal was based on his commission’s work. “That’s like claiming a pile of pottery shards are based on a vase. Maybe a few pieces look like they used to, but it no longer holds water.”
Faythe Aiken, another commission member, asked why city staff and attorneys who had concerns with the group’s draft didn’t attend the nearly two years of meetings the commission held.
“What we presented was thorough, informed within scope and consistent with what the voters asked us to do,” Aiken said. “What you handed back is rushed, feckless and spits in the face of people who have experienced violence at the hands of police.”
She said the experience of spending nearly two years drafting a serious proposal only to have it gutted by the council made the entire volunteering process feel meaningless.
Aiken and more than a dozen others urged the council to delay the vote until the city held a public meeting between city attorneys and the Police Accountability Commission to explain their changes.
While the council moved forward with the vote Wednesday, Brown said she would set up a meeting with commission members in the next month. There is no requirement to integrate their feedback into the proposal, but Mayor Ted Wheeler said he’d reconsider the approved proposal if city attorneys recommended changes.
“I want to be very clear, I support the resolution as amended today, but if legal counsel comes back to this council [with changes], I want to assure everyone I will keep an open mind.”
Several people gave testimony Wednesday applauding the city for altering the Police Accountability Commission’s draft proposal. They argued that the original proposal was unfairly biased against police officers, and that it could discourage officers from seeking employment with the police bureau. Others urged the council to scrap the vote and instead give Portlanders another chance to vote on the original measure that established the oversight system.
“This city is very different than it was in 2020,” said local attorney Kristin Olsen. “It’s not undemocratic to take another vote on this.”
While some city commissioners have expressed similar concerns in the past, they’ve said they want to give the voter-approved system a chance to operate as intended before considering any changes. On Wednesday, commissioners shared their own uncertainty about the new system’s effectiveness.
“I’m going to be very honest and say that I don’t know that we got it a 100% right or that this code language is perfect,” said Commissioner Carmen Rubio. “Only time will tell us that. I do believe that this package allows the city attorney’s office to continue the work in seeing that we get this right.”
The language establishing the new oversight model is far from final.
City attorneys will collect public comment on the proposal until Dec. 15. If that feedback influences their confidence in the proposal, attorneys can bring an updated plan back for another vote
The city will then send the proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval. This is required under the DOJ’s 2014 settlement agreement with Portland over the purportedly unconstitutional use of force by police against people with mental illness. Under that agreement, any changes to a police oversight board must first obtain federal approval.
That bureaucratic wrinkle could roll back some of the changes made to the proposal by city attorneys. DOJ attorneys have said they will only support a new structure that clearly adheres to the voter-approved measure — and one that doesn’t veer from recommendations made by the Police Accountability Commission.
The DOJ is expected to give its feedback to the city by June 2024, with the plan to get the new board up and running by summer 2025.