The Portland City Council began considering three ordinances at its meeting Thursday that could change the way the Portland Police Bureau operates. During a five-hour public hearing, members of the public largely criticized the ordinances as either not going far enough or removing the public from police oversight.
Some also argued the city had made mistakes while negotiating the current police contract.
One policy change would require officers who use deadly force to explain what happened to internal affairs investigators within 48 hours of the incident “unless there is a compelling reason to delay the meeting.”
The proposed ordinance is Mayor Ted Wheeler’s response to a March memo from Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill. Citing an Oregon Supreme Court ruling from the 1980s, Underhill’s office argued that compelling an officer to make a statement to internal affairs — something police reform advocates have been pushing for — could jeopardize his criminal investigations.
The DA’s memo came just months after the city negotiated away the controversial “48-hour rule” with the police union. That long-standing provision in police officer’s contracts allowed them two days before they had to speak with internal affairs about deadly force incidents. Critics said that rule gave officers too much time to craft a story that may not have been truthful.
Under the DA’s interpretation of the law, officers would not be allowed to talk to internal affairs until a separate criminal investigation is complete, effectively delaying the administrative investigation by weeks or even months.
“This interpretation of the law is the best interpretation we have at this time, but I’m not convinced a case from 1982 should be the final word on issues critical to police accountability and the public trust today,” Wheeler told the standing-room-only crowd at Thursday’s council meeting. “That’s why this ordinance, if passed, creates a policy that would compel interviews and wall off employment investigations.”
If passed, the city would ask a judge to review the ordinance in light of the 1984 Oregon Supreme Court ruling and the District Attorney’s memo. Council members could vote on the change next week.
A second ordinance they’re considering would renew the public’s role in the city’s on-going settlement with the Department of Justice by establishing the Portland Commission on Community-Engaged Policing (PCCEP). The new body would replace the disbanded Community Oversight and Advisory Board (COAB) and would become part of the mayor’s office; the mayor also oversees the Portland Police Bureau.
The COAB was a group of 20 community members charged with assessing the city and police bureau’s progress as it implemented the federal settlement. Membership dwindled as the board struggled with what members called a lack of training and support from the city.
Some members of the COAB expressed fear about attending their meetings, Wheeler said Thursday.
“Meetings of the former COAB devolved into shouting matches, racist and sexist slurs, and even threats,” Wheeler said. “The new engagement body that this ordinance contemplates, PCCEP, will allow for the dissemination for information to the community and meaningful public feedback. It will turn what was previously chaos into credibility.”
The third ordinance would allow the city’s Independent Police Review to make recommendations after internal affairs investigations into alleged officer misconduct. Currently, the officer’s supervisor is the one who makes recommendations after an investigation.
Public Asks For Changes
City staff and members of the public spoke about the suite of changes, both acknowledging past failings and expressing frustrations with the proposed changes.
Nicole Grant, senior policy advisor for Wheeler, spoke about the newly proposed public engagement body, the PCCEP. Grant acknowledged that the city didn’t do enough in the way of training and support for the COAB.
“So it’s understandable that this new plan for community engagement, which is intended to reach beyond the settlement agreement, has stigma attached to it,” she said.
She said the proposed new oversight board was developed with the U.S. Department of Justice, and members of the Albina Ministerial Alliance (AMA) Coalition for Justice and Police Reform.
“If we do not move forward with the plan, we will be faced with continued and unyielding strife between the bureau and the community it’s bound to serve — creating a lose-lose situation for our city,” Grant said.
Several members of the public asked that the new board be expanded to include more members and that the members not be solely selected by the mayor’s office. Wheeler is proposing a board between five and nine members, but many who testified Thursday said they want between 11 and 15 board members. Others spoke about shortening the time for compelled officer statements to within 24 hours of a deadly force incident.
“It is vital that officer testimony is collected as soon as possible following the use of deadly force by police,” said A.J. Mendoza, the racial justice trainer and organizer at the advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon.
During his testimony, Albina Ministerial Alliance co-chair Dr. LeRoy Haynes Jr. brought up accusations about police behavior after the 2003 shooting of Kendra James, an African-American woman killed by Portland officers.
“One of the reasons why the community pushed this 48-hour rule is because the officers that killed Kendra James met over at the Lloyd Center in Applebee’s and got their stories together and then went to the DA,” Haynes said. “So this is a critical moment to create trust and accountability.”
T. Allen Bethel, who co-chairs the ministerial coalition, said he doesn’t approve of a PCCEP appointed and controlled by the mayor.
“This removes the responsibility from the rest of the council members for any responsibility for its success and accountability,” he said.
Bethel said he wants a larger group that holds meetings publicly, “not as proposed, two times per month behind closed doors.”
Later in the evening, Wheeler responded, noting that the new board would get public input quarterly and could do so more often if the group wanted.
Failures Made In Negotiating Police Contract
The head of the city’s Independent Police Review, Constantin Severe, urged City Council members to pass all three ordinances.
“As a city we owe it to the relatives of someone who is shot by the Portland Police Bureau to be able to say, ‘We have done everything within our means to be able to look into what happened,’” Severe said. “We also owe that obligation of Portland Police officers. We send them out there to do a very difficult job.”
Severe said the city failed to look at all these issues when it approved its new contract with police officers.
“We have to own that,” he said. “We made a promise to the community that the 48-hour rule is gone. We’re sitting here six, seven months later looking at alternatives.”
Severe said the memo from Underhill’s office has hurt public trust in the city and the city’s police.
“Unfortunately, ever since that memo has come out of the district attorney’s office there has been a significant tension between the community and the city and the Portland Police Bureau that didn’t need to be there,” he said. “We should’ve done our due diligence.”
During the hearing, Underhill defended his agency’s memo. He said his concern is that if an officer is compelled to give a statement to internal affairs, it could lead to a dismissal of a criminal conviction. If that happened, Underhill said, the public would lose confidence in the criminal justice system.
It’s highly unusual for grand juries to indict Portland police officers. In recent history, only one officer was indicted on criminal charges for using deadly force while on the job. In 2011, Dane Reister became the first Portland officer indicted for using force while on the job; he died by suicide before his case could be prosecuted. Reister fired live rounds at a man when he thought he was using less-lethal rounds.
“Because one of my primary duties as your district attorney is to prosecute the perpetrator of criminal acts, I believe I owe it to the community to let them know when a policy or a practice by one of our criminal justice system partners may impact or inhibit my performance of that duty,” Underhill said.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on the ordinances Aug. 9.
Correction, Aug. 5, 2017: A previous version of this article misstated the details of a shooting incident involving Duane Reister. OPB regrets the error.