In his nearly 11 years in the Oregon Legislature, state Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, has been regularly introducing bills aimed at changing how police operate — particularly when it comes to how they treat people who are Black and brown.
Frederick’s had his successes — passing legislation on racial profiling and requiring that new police recruits receive psychological testing. But he’s had plenty of failures, too, on issues ranging from use of force to turning over the investigations of local police shootings to state authorities.
But the Black legislator from Northeast Portland is now seeing a new sense of urgency for police accountability in the wake of the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
"I think we have a greater chance of doing this because we are organized," said Frederick. He thinks lawmakers may quickly pass one of his measures dealing with cops facing disciplinary actions, at a special session that may be held in the next several weeks.
At the same time, Frederick said it won’t be easy to produce the kind of big changes that protesters are demanding.
“I’m not going to say it’s going to be a culture-changing experience in the Legislature,” he said. “That doesn’t happen overnight.”
Legislators don’t move at speed of protest march
While law enforcement may be under scrutiny as never before, attempts to overhaul police procedures have often been stymied by complexity and controversy. Cities, counties, the Legislature and the federal government all share control over how local cops, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers are supposed to act on the beat. Demonstrators may chant about defunding the current system of policing, but legislators tend to move much more incrementally.
“I’m extremely hopeful from a legislative standing we can make a couple of changes that give communities the ability to wean themselves off of people who should no longer wear the badge,” said Republican Rep. Ron Noble, a former McMinnville police chief who has partnered with Frederick on some legislation.
“It’s a start,” added Noble. “It’s not going to solve the problem, but get us in the direction where we should go.”
Police accountability has been a big issue for years in the state Capitol, driven by controversial police shootings, both in Oregon and nationally. Following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which made Black Lives Matter a national movement, also inspired demonstrations inside the Oregon Capitol.
But the political crosscurrents in the Legislature remain tricky.
Political headwinds against police reforms
Almost all police officers and sheriff's deputies in Oregon are unionized, and they’ve resisted some key legislation. Many lawmakers are leery of changes aimed at reducing the high rates of incarceration among African American men for fear of being seen as soft on crime.
Former House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, a Portland Democrat who left the Legislature last year, also chaired the Judiciary Committee and pushed to rework a criminal justice system that she said perpetuates institutional racism.
“It’s not just policing,” said Williamson, who made an unsuccessful run for secretary of state. “It’s just the front door to an entire system that needs to be examined.”
Williamson became a lightning-rod figure after helping push through bills that gave judges — not prosecutors — the power to decide if juveniles accused of violent crime should be tried in adult court, and that narrowed the scope of crimes subject to the Oregon death penalty.
She describes the battle lines as less between Democrats and Republicans, and more an old guard invested in the current system against those open to change. Critics accuse her of failing to understand the concerns of crime victims and of running roughshod over tough sentencing laws approved by voters in the 1980s and 1990s.
Police discipline, union contracts
One of the first legislative tests following the latest wave of demonstrations will likely involve the bill dealing with police discipline. Union contracts typically give officers the right to go to binding arbitration to challenge disciplinary actions. Those have been a big issue in Oregon at least since 2010, when an arbitrator overturned the firing of a Portland police officer who shot and killed Aaron Campbell.
Frederick won a unanimous yes vote in the state Senate in 2019 on a measure that would have prevented arbitrators from overturning disciplinary actions based on standards agreed to in police contracts. But the bill died in the House, in large part because of opposition from the police unions. One key opponent was Rep. Jeff Barker, a former police officer who was once president of the Portland Police Association.
Barker said arbitration is a good check on disciplinary actions that may be based more on politics instead of facts.
“When you don’t have a good result and the crowd howls, you throw a cop out the door,” Barker said. “You don’t really solve the underlying problem. You just say, ‘Well, we’ve taken care of that guy.’”
Noble, the former McMinnville police chief, said he understands the concerns of rank-and-file police officers who want to be treated fairly on the job.
But, he said, “in the end we need to ensure we only have the right people wearing the badge. … You can’t teach character or integrity.”
The measure passed the Senate again in 2020 and appeared to have a good chance in the House until a Republican walkout shut down the rest of the session.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said the bill now looks like it will be ready to go soon, if an expected special session is held to deal with the big budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic-induced economic crash.
State vs. local control of fatal police incidents
Prozanski said lawmakers will have to move more slowly on another bill proposed by the Oregon Legislative People of Color Caucus and backed by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.
It calls for the state attorney general’s office to take over the investigations of police use of force that leads to death or serious injury. Proponents argue that local prosecutors are often too close to their area’s police agencies and as a result may not adequately investigate police use of force.
Prozanski said there are several practical problems to work out in shifting investigations to the state, including figuring out how the attorney general can staff up to handle investigations that could include securing crime scenes from the far-flung corners of the state. The added cost during a budget crisis is another sticking point.
Prozanski and House Judiciary Chairwoman Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, are also forming a work group to look at the police use of force that could lead to legislation next year.
Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, said the state needs to provide more clear standards throughout the state, noting for example that not every police agency in the state bans chokeholds.
“If we were to give our officers clear guidance and training, they are going to be better equipped and we will start building community,” said Manning, an African American legislator with a long career in law enforcement. “There is a lack of community trust. Once you lose it, it’s hard to get it back."
Frederick said the rising number of legislators of color in Salem will help keep pressure on the assembly. The nine-member People of Color Caucus “has a greater chance of doing this because we are organized,” he said. “And because this is not just an Oregon issue, this is a national issue that people are watching.”
Rep. Akasha Lawrence Spence, D-Portland, and the newest member of the caucus, said members of the group are increasingly adding their experience to the swirl of complex policy-making in Salem.
“Just being able to diversify the chorus of voices making decisions,” she said, “has enabled us to have different conversations and change the melody that would not have happened otherwise.”