Oregon’s law enforcement unions, while insisting they want to work cooperatively with legislators to revamp policing practices, are raising objections to all six police accountability bills that have been introduced for the special session.
The bills range from bans on chokeholds and the use of tear gas to changes in disciplinary procedures for police. They form the centerpiece of a legislative session called in the wake of the nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis.
Michael Selvaggio, the lobbyist for the Oregon Coalition of Police & Sheriffs, known as ORCOPS for short, said he would "roundly reject the notion we're somehow in the way of reform."
But, he added, the bills have some “very obvious and unworkable mechanisms” and that it “seems to me like they really rushed into this.”
Lawmakers are now pushing forward with several bills that have faced strong union opposition in the past. They include measures that would revamp police discipline cases, ban tear gas and give the state attorney general the power to oversee investigations into police actions that lead to death or serious injury.
Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, is a member of the legislative People of Color Caucus, which has proposed several of the bills being taken up by the legislature.
“It is time for us to go ahead and initiate these reforms,” Manning said “The people demand it.”
Manning, a former Army drill sergeant who also once worked as a police officer, said the police unions will have a chance to make their case.
“Right now, all of the bills are in a good position to move forward,” he said. “But, you know, as we start engaging in debate, then we’ll see how things turn out.”
He said one or two of the bills could get referred to a work group to be taken up at a future session.
Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland and another member of the caucus, said he thinks the unions are trying to delay action in hopes the momentum for change will ebb.
“They believe that the system works just fine for them right now,” said Frederick, “and frankly it doesn’t for anybody else.”
Frederick said he expected parts of all six bills to pass, but he said some of the implementation could be delayed to future sessions.
Selveggio, the lobbyist for the police unions, said he would like legislators to spend more time on legislation that would create a database of state discipline records. And his group suggested a flurry of changes to other bills. Instead of simply banning chokeholds, which have been blamed for many deaths, the unions say it should remain in an “officer’s legal repertoire” when the life of an officer or crime victim is at risk.
The unions also said that a ban on tear gas is “overly broad” and could force officers to use more physical force. The unions also said legislators should narrow the scope of a bill that would require police to intervene to stop other officers from doing something that is “unethical or that violates law, rules or policy.”
Frederick said the bills that would limit the uses of tear gas and chokeholds could be refined during the session.
The unions said that instead of turning investigations over to the state attorney general, cases of deadly use of force by police should automatically go to local grand juries.
The police measure that appears closest to passage would revamp police discipline procedures. The measure passed the Senate earlier this year, but the session ended early because of a Republican walkout. The bill would make it harder for officers to fight discipline cases by going to binding arbitration. The police unions continue to oppose the bill, saying it gives police chiefs and city leaders too much unilateral power to discipline officers, including firing them.
A legislative committee will hold a hearing at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday on the police accountability bills. The special session will start Wednesday.