Amid a national uprising over police violence, a Portland city commissioner and a coalition of activists are pushing toward a November ballot measure that would reshape police oversight.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office has contacted more than a dozen groups and individuals, including civil rights organizations, attorneys and religious leaders, seeking input on a potential fall measure.
If passed by voters as currently envisioned, the measure would create a new police oversight system, enshrined in the city charter and independent from any elected office or city bureau. The measure would also create a committee tasked with building out the city charter’s requirements and fleshing out the finer details of how the new police oversight body would function.
The changes enacted by a ballot measure and the resulting committee could open the door to reforms long-sought by many in the community, such as the ability for an oversight body to gather evidence through subpoenas, have final say within the city when it comes to disciplinary actions against officers, and the ability to change police directives and policies.
The bureau’s day-to-day operations would still be overseen by a member of the Portland City Council, usually a responsibility the mayor keeps for themselves, as Mayor Ted Wheeler has. But some of the incidents currently investigated by the bureau’s internal affairs unit could potentially fall under the jurisdiction of the new oversight body. If passed as proposed, the body would investigate instances of police misconduct that involved excessive uses of force, deaths in police custody, potential civil liberty violations, and instances in which police are accused of being biased against a protected class.
Anger over the shortcomings of Portland’s current system of police accountability has been in the spotlight recently as nightly demonstrations against police violence and brutality in Portland enter their second month.
Portland Police Association president Daryl Turner didn’t return OPB’s request for comment on the oversight changes being discussed.
Protesters have demanded police oversight bodies be granted more power when it comes to disciplining and firing police officers. Wheeler recently said during a news conference he believed the Independent Police Review and the Citizen Review Committee didn't "have the kind of the kind of teeth that true independent oversight requires." And now Hardesty hopes to abolish the old system completely.
"We can’t fix a system that by design wields little power and holds little public trust,” Hardesty said in an emailed statement Monday. “We have heard for years from community members that an independent police oversight body with real teeth is much needed, and right now we have the momentum and political power to turn that into reality. There are many paths to police accountability, and I believe this is one of the pieces to the puzzle."
The Rev. LeRoy Haynes, with the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, has been part of discussions around the potential ballot measure and said the conversations underway include a diverse array of opinions.
But Haynes said there is agreement that the current oversight structure can’t meet the demands of demonstrators calling for racial justice and an end to police violence against Black and brown people.
“There’s a broad consensus that what we have now isn’t working,” Haynes said. “One of our organizations' demands is for subpoena power and the power to compel testimony from officers.”
According to a recent expose by a former investigator with the IPR, Andrea Damewood, the agency is hamstrung from holding police accountable. The system, she wrote in Willamette Week, lacked "transparency and true accountability." Citizens never see the police misconduct investigations that result from their complaints. The standards police are held to allow leeway for unprofessional conduct to go unpunished. Investigators can't obtain police reports without asking the bureau's records department. Some of these challenges can only be changed with state law. Other fixes would be made by the city.
Haynes said the decision will likely be made this week whether to push forward with a ballot measure this fall.
"That’s the critical thing,” Haynes said, “is there enough time to do that or should we wait for another opportunity?”
Some have questioned whether the city charter is the right place to focus efforts to strengthen Portland’s police oversight system.
Jason Renaud, the founder of the Mental Health Association of Portland, has not been involved in conversations about the ballot measure, though he’s involved in other discussions with the city over police accountability as part of its 2014 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice for using excessive force toward those in a mental health crisis.
Upon learning of the ballot measure talk, Renaud said he believes the reforms that need to be made to improve police accountability, such as providing a review board with subpoena power, should be enacted by elected leaders.
“It doesn’t need to be on the ballot. It just needs to be voted on by three members of the city council. A ballot is super expensive and will likely lose,” he said. “That seems to be a very wide workaround for the problem. All [Hardesty] needs is three votes on city council to change the rules here.”
Other advocates for more civilian oversight, such Juan Chavez, an attorney with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said a ballot measure would demonstrate the political will for more public oversight of police.
Chavez said Hardesty’s office reached out to the center on Monday, asking what they would like to see out of a citizen review board. Chavez said he hoped a new oversight board could write policies for officers, have disciplinary powers, and be well-funded by the city.
“It needs to have the full force of a city budget behind it to actually accomplish something,” he said. “[The reason] you have a civilian review board is you want to bring in perspectives that aren’t institutional. The problem is if you don’t have the ability to maintain and sustain that level of work, it just falls apart.”
Haynes said Hardesty is the latest to host a conversation about increased accountability and oversight of police officers, which has been ongoing for decades. In early June, City Council candidate Loretta Smith released a list of changes she wanted to see that included a November ballot measure for a new independent police review body. She said she decided the step was necessary after “many conversations with local advocates.”
In a statement, the mayor’s office said Wheeler agrees the system needs an update.
“While we're separately pressing forward on our 19-point plan, we're also working with Commissioner Hardesty and her team on this effort related to IPR,” read the statement. “We are excited by the momentum and the opportunity to improve this part of the system, and our focus is on ensuring that we're doing it thoughtfully and with attention to the many details involved with something this complex.”