A newly convened legislative committee set a blistering pace Wednesday, when it met for the first time in what are expected to be long-term hearings over reforming police practices in Oregon.
In a tightly choreographed two-hour hearing, the new Joint Committee on Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform heard testimony on the role of systemic racism in public health, civil liberties, white supremacy in policing, antifascist movements, protest tactics, police standards for using force, and the complexities of prosecuting officers.
That was just day one.
In planned hearings on Thursday and Friday, the committee is scheduled to delve into topics like crowd-control tactics at demonstrations, so-called “qualified immunity” laws that prevent officers from being sued, best practices for policing, and more.
The 12-member committee, created during a special legislative session in late June, is seen as the Legislature's primary organ to research and propose police reforms that lawmakers can take up in future sessions. While legislators passed several much-sought reforms in last month's three-day session, there's a consensus among many community members that Oregon should be far more ambitious as it seeks to rethink its criminal justice system.
A central goal is “to have an open, honest discussion about the events that led us to establishing this committee,” said state Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, who co-chairs the committee.
“We’ve seen a number of disparities throughout the nation, and Oregon is a much better place. We have some problems here and I think united we can overcome these problems.”
Since it was formed via a bill on June 26, the committee has begun to develop an ambitious roster of topics and experts lawmakers will hear from as they consider what future system changes they’ll put forward. On Wednesday, that well-curated group of experts was often only just able to scratch the surface of the subjects they’d been asked to appear on.
For instance, Kelly Simon, interim legal director for the ACLU of Oregon, was only able to background lawmakers on free speech rights before she was asked to wrap up her remarks, leaving little time for an examination of how those rights were or were not being honored in nightly protests on the streets of Portland.
Michael German, a former FBI agent and widely cited authority on white supremacist movements in the country, was forced by time constraints to give a cursory summation of how hate groups have at times intertwined with members in the law enforcement community. German did suggest potential criteria — such as certain tattoos or racist social media posts — that could be explicitly included as reasons to discipline officers.
Cheryl Albrecht, chief criminal judge for the Multnomah County Circuit Court, didn’t even attempt to make it through her PowerPoint presentation on how grand juries are selected. “We rarely see use-of-force cases against officers,” Albrecht noted at the outset of her presentation. “They don’t come out of the grand jury. They don’t come before us as judges.”
Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, executive director of the Avel Gordly Center for Healing at Oregon Health and Sciences University, requested extra time to get through her presentation about rethinking police training and accountability.
“What we’re really seeking in this conversation...is really a demonstrable cultural and subcultural shift,” Moreland-Capuia told lawmakers, adding later: “The idea of changing hearts and minds must be centered in any meaningful conversation of reform.”
Following the conclusion of all nine witness presentations, committee co-chair Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, acknowledged the brevity of the testimony.
“We know we were a little tight on time today,” Bynum said. “We’ll try to take that feedback and do a better job in the next two days on the presentations.”
Exactly what proposals will come out of the committee are unclear, but two likely areas of emphasis are how police shootings are investigated and whether police should be allowed to use tear gas and other crowd-control weapons on demonstrators.
Legislators nearly acted on the former subject during last month's session, taking up a bill that would have put oversight over police shooting investigations into the hands of the Attorney General's office. Sponsors of that proposal backed off after hearing concerns that it needed further study.
The Legislature did enact new regulations on how and when police agencies in the state are allowed to use tear gas on crowds, mandating that they declare a riot at least twice before deploying the gas.
That policy is seen as too soft by many reform advocates, who have suggested banning use of the gas altogether. And the new law has so far seemed to create little barrier for Portland Police, who have repeatedly declared a riot before sending gas into demonstrations since the bill was signed into law June 30.
One of those instances spurred criticism from House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, who wrote an email to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler calling the incident “an abuse of the statute.”
"I support going stronger if we didn't get it right," Kotek wrote on Twitter.
The Legislature’s policing committee plans to meet at 10 a.m. on July 9 and 10, and also has scheduled hearings from July 15-17.