Ballot proposal would undo Portland’s new police accountability system

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
Feb. 24, 2024 12:03 a.m. Updated: Feb. 24, 2024 12:29 a.m.

A pair of lawyers tied to Portland’s police union are proposing a ballot measure that would effectively gut the city’s voter-approved system to address officer misconduct.

The petition needs more than 40,000 signatures to land on the November ballot.


The petition was submitted this week by William Aitchison and Anil Karia, lawyers with Public Safety Labor Group, who specialize in representing law enforcement. Both attorneys regularly represent Portland’s rank-and-file police union, the Portland Police Association.

Aitchison declined to comment on the petition, referring OPB to Karia. Karia did not immediately respond to OPB’s request for comment. PPA President Aaron Schmautz declined to comment on the proposal.

The move is the latest response to the wave of police accountability reforms and promises made during the 2020 racial justice movement. It comes as the city continues to struggle to hire officers and respond to emergencies citywide.

FILE: The Portland Police Bureau's Central Precinct building on Southwest 2nd Avenue in Portland.

FILE: The Portland Police Bureau's Central Precinct building on Southwest 2nd Avenue in Portland.

Caden Perry / OPB

If the measure qualifies for the ballot, the petitioners intend to diminish the power of the Community Police Oversight Board, the new department approved with 82% voter support in 2020.

That department, which is not yet operational, replaces the city’s current police oversight system — which is largely controlled by police — with a new entity under the purview of a city-appointed board. The 2020 measure, written to improve accountability and transparency in the police bureau, explicitly prohibits people who have worked for a law enforcement agency and their immediate family members from serving on the board. Those board members will have the authority to investigate serious misconduct cases, like use of deadly force, discrimination, and deaths in custody. Currently, those cases are overseen by a board made up largely of police officers. The 2020 measure also guaranteed that 5% of the Portland Police Bureau’s annual budget would fund this new oversight office.

The new department is expected to be up and running by summer 2025.

If petitioners gather enough signatures to reach the ballot, the proposed ballot measure would derail that plan, sending Portland’s police oversight model back to a pre-2020 model.


Through heavy edits to the charter language approved in 2020, the proposal only allows board members to investigate cases involving deadly force, deaths in custody, and discrimination “by and through” the department’s director. It’s not immediately clear what that change would entail. It also prohibits members of the board from being able to compel testimony from officers under investigation. Instead, it reroutes that responsibility back to the department director.

The proposal would also allow law enforcement members and their family to serve on the board, remove a requirement that the board hold public meetings, and undo the 5% budget mandate. It also replaced language about the board’s goal to impose discipline and address community concerns about misconduct, instead saying the board should be focused on “recommending improvements to recruiting, retaining, and training” officers.

The PPA has previously raised concerns with the new oversight system, especially with the potential of holding public hearings about police misconduct. Some of those concerns have been echoed by Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as the city’s police commissioner. Wheeler has questioned the need to bar law enforcement officers from the board.

More recently, the union commissioned a poll of 500 Portland voters on their thoughts about the Community Police Oversight Board. A majority of those surveyed, 57%, said voters should have a chance to consider a revised version of that oversight plan, while 23% said they supported keeping it in its original form.

The city is currently in negotiations with the PPA over the code language that delineated the power and structure of the new oversight board.

Those who advocated for the 2020 police oversight measure said they were surprised to hear of the new petition.

“It seems like a clear attempt to roll back the entire police oversight measure,” said Candace Avalos, who helped with the campaign in support of the new oversight measure.

Avalos, the director of environmental justice nonprofit Verde, is running for Portland City Council in November.

Dan Handelman, the founder of police accountability group Portland Copwatch, sat on the committee tasked with writing the new code language. He called the proposal “outrageous.”

“It’s frustrating that the people who have unlimited authority to kill people and never be held accountable for it are saying, ‘Hey, let’s actually not hold us accountable,’” he said Friday afternoon. “All these years of the union saying that they cared about accountability… it didn’t mean anything.”

The attorneys behind the petition will need to collect 40,748 signatures in support of the proposal to get the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot. They have until July 5 to gather signatures.

This is one of two petitions submitted by Aitchson and Karia. They also are proposing a ballot measure that would mandate the city “increase and maintain” the number of PPB officers, a drug and alcohol detoxification center, and Portland Street Response services.