UPDATE (April 19, 5:47 p.m. PT) — U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon heard Thursday morning from frustrated and angry members of the public over how the Portland Police Bureau interacts with city residents.
The hearing, held on the 15th floor of the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse in downtown Portland, was the third annual status conference on the settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Portland over police officers' use of force.
The hearing came a little more than a week after seven Portland Police officers were involved in the shooting death of 48-year-old John Elifritz in a homeless shelter, which at times overshadowed much of the official agenda.
The purpose of the hearing was to discuss amendments that were not opposed by any of the parties in the settlement, though the Albina Ministerial Alliance for Justice and Police Reform noted it had some concerns. The hearing was also an opportunity for the Justice Department and the city to update the judge on progress made toward fully implementing the settlement.
"Overall your honor, we found the city made significant progress," DOJ attorney Jonas Geissler said in court. Geissler added that the DOJ believes the city has turned a corner on policies and training.
"PPB values training," he said. "We've seen this."
Simon ultimately adopted five of six amendments, but set a hearing for early October to get an update on the community engagement portion of the settlement, called the Portland Commission on Community Engaged Policing, or PCCEP. It's a replacement for the Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB). Until it was dissolved in early 2017, the COAB served as the public’s voice in the settlement.
Members of the Albina Ministerial Alliance told Judge Simon the PCCEP isn’t a true replacement for the COAB. Unlike the COAB, which was chosen by community members, the PCCEP would be selected by the mayor. Some meetings would be held behind closed doors, others in public, but all meeting minutes would be made public.
“Coming to these amendments has been a long, arduous process,” said Dr. LeRoy Haynes, president of the alliance. “Given people are still dying on our streets in Portland due to police action, the AMA has decided to move forward.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler asked the judge to adopt the amendments.
“We agree we need a mechanism for community oversight and engagement well after the settlement is achieved,” Wheeler said in court. “The community had a right to demand constitutional and community policing.”
Wheeler said the city is not commenting on last week's officer-involved shooting to preserve the Multnomah County district attorney’s criminal investigation.
While the hearing was largely about amendments to the settlement agreement, last week’s shooting in Southeast Portland loomed large, especially as a public hearing got underway.
Simon asked members of the public to comment about whether he should adopt, reject or conditionally accept the amendments and hold a hearing in six months to assess them.
Instead, he got references to last week's shooting and members of the public frustrated by the settlement process.
"I long for accountability in this city," Portland resident Mimi German testified. "Accountability for cops murdering our most vulnerable. What I see instead is a mayor asking for 93 more cops days after a man is murdered on the streets."
Wheeler, who is also the police commissioner, has called for hiring between 14 to 93 new police officers to help improve officers' response times to calls.
Portland City Council candidate Jo Ann Hardesty asked Simon to consider a fourth option to the three he posed: to declare the settlement process a failure.
“We are in crisis,” Hardesty said in court. “I want everyone to go home from an encounter with the police."
Hardesty described the video uploaded to social media that shows Portland Police officers in the moments before, during and after Elifritz was shot and killed. She said it showed “chaos.”
“What it showed was a man in mental health distress stabbing himself in the neck,” Hardesty said. “Nothing in that video showed any de-escalation tactics at all.
“If 20 police officers can’t take one man in mental health crisis into custody, then hiring 93 more police officers won’t do a darn thing,” she said.
Other members of the public called the settlement process “corrupt.” Others addressed Simon’s question more directly.
Debbie Aiona, with the League of Women Voters of Portland, said her group opposes aspects of PCCEP that close the meeting to the public.
“The League’s chief concern related to the PCCEP is the provision allowing the committee to hold its meetings behind closed doors if and when it wishes,” Aiona testified. “While this may be technically in compliance with Oregon’s public meeting law, it certainly is not consistent with its spirit.”
Many also expressed their support for Simon and his role in the settlement process.
“Aloha to you,” Kalei Luyben said to Simon. “This room does need to mellow out, your honor.”
Luyben said Simon’s courtroom is the only place the community is welcome to speak the truth. It’s the “only place the community is welcome. It’s a hard thing for me to say and I know it’s a hard thing for you to hear.”
It was the first such hearing for Portland's new police chief, Danielle Outlaw, who spent the day in court seated next to her new deputy chief Bob Day.
In brief remarks to the court after hearing public testimony, Outlaw pledged to be open and transparent.
"It pains me that there's so much dissonance in the community," Outlaw said.
Throughout the day, Simon asked the U.S. Department of Justice, the city and others if they had a position about whether Portland's Unity Center for Behavioral Heath was adequately funded and resourced. The center was set up in January 2017 by several health care providers to provide 24-hour emergency mental heath care.
Neither the Department of Justice nor the city said they had a position on whether the center had adequate resources.
Simon also asked whether the city knew how many people go from Unity to jail. Portland City Attorney Tracy Reeve said she didn't know, but would find out.
In his concluding remarks, Simon said he didn't know if the PCCEP would address concerns.
“I don’t know whether that will be sufficient to solve this problem, but I'm willing to give deference to the four parties," he said. "So let's give it a try."