Oregon Police Reform Package Sees Changes Headed Into Session's Final Stretch

By Jeff Mapes (OPB) and Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
June 26, 2020 2:33 a.m.

Oregon legislators appeared to reach consensus Thursday on a package of police accountability bills aimed at changing the culture of law enforcement in the state, though some provisions only survived with major tweaks.


On the second day of feverish, at times confused lawmaking, a legislative committee met into the night to complete its work on nearly two dozen bills proposed in the special legislative session. As a result, lawmakers appear poised to close out the session Friday, once bills have been heard in each chamber.

Bills taken up Thursday addressed a vast array of policy proposals, from driver’s license suspensions to meat inspections and foreclosure protections. But among the most striking steps proposed were amendments to the six police accountability bills that have been a focal point of the session.

Several of the measures were dialed back — they would no longer ban chokeholds or tear gas, for example — and are far from meeting the demands of demonstrators who have been mounting nightly protests since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.

“I think we have movement, but we have a long ways to go,” said Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, a member of the legislative People of Color Caucus, said early Thursday. “It’s a start.”

Changes to the bills were generally praised by a wide variety of interest groups, including chiefs of police, district attorneys and officials representing local government associations.

Even the state’s police unions, which had raised objections to all of the original bills, expressed general support for all but one of them. They remain adamantly opposed to a measure that would make it harder for officers to contest disciplinary actions against them.

“I want to thank the committee for the work that has come to this point,” said Michael Selvaggio, the lobbyist representing the Oregon Coalition of Police & Sheriffs.

The six bills at stake deal with:

  • The use of chokeholds by police. The original draft of House Bill 4203 banned the practice, but it was changed so that chokeholds would be allowed if deadly use of force is justified.
  • The use of tear gas, sound cannons and long-range acoustic devices. Amendments to House Bill 4208 no longer ban those outright, instead allowing the use of tear gas in riot situations, if the police provide notice and give demonstrators time to disperse. The amendments do not place any new limits on acoustic weapons.
  • Turning investigations of police actions involving death or serious injury over to the state attorney general. An amendment to House Bill 4201 scrapped that idea, and instead punt the issue to a special legislative committee for more study.
  • Requiring officers to intervene or report a fellow officer is engaged in misconduct. House Bill 4205 was amended to protect officers from retaliation from their supervisors and to clarify what kind of actions involve wrongdoing that should be reported.
  • Requiring the state to maintain public records on police discipline that agencies around the state can access. House Bill 4207 now requires police agencies to check disciplinary records when hiring an officer who has worked in a different jurisdiction.
  • Making it easier to uphold discipline against police. Senate Bill 1604 was the only bill without amendments, and lawmakers seem determined to pass it in its current form over the opposition of police unions. The measure would put new limits on the ability of officers to seek binding arbitration if they are fired or otherwise disciplined. Arbitrators have reversed several high-profile police officer dismissals in Portland in recent decades.

Lawmakers also injected a series of "whereas" clauses to the top of each of the bills — language that will not ultimately be included in state law, but is used to show legislative intent. The first-such clause in each bill, which also included details of Black Americans who'd been killed by police: "Whereas Black Lives Matter."

Despite policy changes, the package of bills was hailed by lawmakers who were pushing the bills. That included state Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, who has pursued police accountability measures in the Legislature for a decade.

"I cannot begin to tell you how pleased I am and pretty much overwhelmed by the response," Frederick said Thursday night, as the committee prepared to pass the final police accountability bill.

Committee deliberations on the police reform package came at the end of a day that saw most of the major issues up for consideration in the session go before the committee. That included moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, protections for disabled Oregonians and a sweeping "omnibus" bill that deals with such topics as homeless shelters, trial dates and far more.

Thursday also saw five bills pass the house, including a provision that would ensure that driving privileges can’t be stripped simply because a person doesn’t pay their traffic tickets — a proposal resuscitated from the legislative session that imploded earlier this year.

Bills that also passed the House:

  • Tweaked the state's new Commercial Activity Tax. The Legislature passed this tax on business sales in 2019 to provide more money for schools. The changes in House Bill 4202 are aimed at dealing with some technical problems that had affected some agricultural producers and other firms.
  • Established a state inspection program for meat producers. Supporters said House Bill 4206 will help give small livestock producers access to more processors. They said that's particularly important now because of pandemic-caused bottlenecks at national processors.
  • Provided more flexibility for an economic development program run by eastern Oregon counties bordering Idaho. Supporters say House Bill 4209 is needed to effectively deploy a $5 million grant fund.

Those provisions still have to be taken up in the Senate.

Though the timing of this special session has been vastly more uncertain than most, the way appeared paved Thursday for lawmakers to finish their work Friday.

House Republicans on Thursday morning showed a willingness to suspend rules requiring a bill be read on at least three separate days before passing.

Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said Thursday his caucus also would agree to suspend those rules.

“The longer we’re in the building, the more damage they can do,” Girod said, referring to the majority Democrats.