Two national civil rights activists briefed the Portland City Council Tuesday on language in police contracts they say undermines efforts to discipline officers and to reduce the number of people shot and killed by police. 

The activists say Oregon law does not preclude city leaders from doing more themselves to negotiate a contract that curbs uses of force. 

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, herself a prominent local civil rights activist, invited DeRay Mckesson and Samuel Sinyangwe to present their research to the full council in a work session. 

Portland’s contract with the union that represents rank and file officers is up for renegotiation next year. 

The activists’ presentation is the latest move that Hardesty has made to bring outside input into what has historically been largely a secret bargaining process between the union and city attorneys. 

But the council took a cautious approach to discussing the actual contract publicly. 

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who has day-to-day oversight of the police under Portland’s unusual commission form of government, said at the outset he was limiting the scope of Mckesson and Sinyangwe’s presentation, citing “legal risks.” The national experts would not be allowed to speak to specific provisions in Portland’s contract. 

“As police commissioner, I am committed to bargaining in good faith,” Wheeler said. “Their views may or may not be in alignment with individual members of the council.”  

Mckesson and Sinyangwe are leaders of Campaign Zero, a policy advocacy group created out of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

They began their presentation by making a case that police in Portland use force disproportionately against people of color and the homeless, using data they said comes from the police bureau itself. 

For example, while black people make up 6% of Portland’s population, they made up 23% of the people shot by Portland police from 2010 to 2019. The disparity is even greater for unarmed people shot by police. Black people made up 40% of that group, according to Mckesson and Sinyangwe. 

“The context and situation in which force is used is different for black people,” Mckesson told city leaders.

Data from 2017 to 2019 shows that half of the people Portland officers used force against were homeless, the activists said. 

Wheeler appeared surprised by that statistic and challenged the activists when they brought it up later. 

“I have to correct you. I’m not sure that statistic is accurate,” he said.

“We double-checked it last night,” Mckesson told him.

The statistic is accurate, according to demographic data available on the Portland Police Bureau’s public use of force dashboard

Mckesson and Sinyangwe contend that language in police union contracts across the country is too protective of police officers, in conflict with communities’ interests in accountability and transparency. 

The group’s Police Union Contract Project identifies specific language in contracts in 81 cities around the country they say is problematic. 

In their Portland presentation, Mckesson and Sinyangwe flagged a wide range of issues, including provisions in many cities’ contracts, including Portland, that give officers the ability to challenge a disciplinary decision in binding arbitration. Outside arbitrators have the power to reverse disciplinary decisions and reinstate officers the city has fired. 

“We know it’s very rare for an officer to be disciplined, let alone fired, for misconduct. When that happens, we see this single provision in many contracts undermining those decisions by democratically elected legislators,” Sinyangwe said. 

He cited an analysis by the Washington Post that looked at the percent of fired officers reinstated after arbitration in cities across the country. According to the Post, 24% of officers fired in Portland in 2016-2017 were reinstated.

That arbitration process is established in state law, and public safety unions successfully blocked two bills that would have changed it in the last legislative session. 

Mckesson and Sinyangwe also criticized contract language that limits the kinds of discipline a city can impose and guarantees officers paid leave while they’re under investigation for misconduct. 

That prompted a comment from city attorney Heidi Brown, who said a U.S. Supreme Court case addressing due process for government employees may limit the city’s ability to place officers on unpaid leave to situations that involve a criminal indictment. 

Officer Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, didn’t answer a call from OPB. In a written statement, he said the recommendations were “nothing more than an attack on workers that would strip officers of their right to due process.”

Mckesson said he doesn’t believe police have pushed for outlandish job protections or shouldn’t be given due process. Instead, he said he believes cities have been too quick to give public safety unions concessions on disciplinary matters because their bargaining has focused on issues of pay and fiscal policy.

“Most of the things that people fight about are money,” he said. “Most of the provisions that we talk about are cost-neutral, but they’re not cost-neutral for people’s lives.”

The activists also suggested the council and police chief may be able to change some bureau policies around the use of force without needing to bargain with the union. 

They described Oregon’s state law governing officers’ use of deadly force as the most permissive in the country, but they also said it doesn’t preempt the city from adopting higher standards for its officers. 

That prompted Commissioner Amanda Fritz to ask the activists to share sample language the city could use to narrow when deadly force by an officer is considered within the city’s policy. 

“That is really helpful because obviously, we can change policies without bargaining,” Fritz said. 

Commissioner Nick Fish requested private follow-up briefings from the city attorneys in the next two weeks to help the council begin formulating its negotiating strategy. 

Aides to the mayor said they believe negotiation on the contract will begin in earnest starting next January.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify language regarding unarmed people who are black and have been shot by Portland police.