Amid nightly protests demanding fundamental changes to policing in Portland, the city agreed to extend its contract with the police union and maintain the status quo within the bureau for one more year.
City leaders originally aimed to have a new contract negotiated with the Portland Police Association, which represents rank-and-file bureau members, this summer. The old contract expired on June 30.
But COVID-19 interfered with scheduled negotiating sessions. With bargaining on hold and legislation that could potentially impact the contract shifting at the state level, Portland City Council members voted to extend the current contract for one year.
At the same time, clamor for the Council to quickly change oversight of the police bureau has reached fever pitch. The night before the vote, protesters gathered outside Portland Police Association headquarters on North Lombard Street. Despite strict orders to limit the use of tear gas, officers used the gas to disperse the crowd. Several journalists were arrested. In recent days, some have called on the Council to let the contract expire rather than push negotiations down the road.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler countered Wednesday that letting the contract expire would potentially mean less community involvement. The city had pledged that all bargaining sessions hosted by the city would be public, but no agreement would mean the parties could go into a confidential mediation process.
He compared the situation to his decision to to delay a vote on declaring a climate emergency, a choice he said was made to better engage communities of color.
“I remember when we delayed the vote on the climate declaration, how much grief we got from the community,” said Wheeler. “That original blowback we received basically dissipated once people understood what we were trying to do.
“This is another example where today we are hearing some pointed speeches, people telling us that we are making mistakes by not charging forward come hell or high water — regardless of the fact that we all as a council acknowledge we cannot do the kind of public engagement process that we already promised. I believe this will turn out to be the same.”
According to the agreement, bargaining will restart on Jan. 13, 2021, when the parties are hoping to be able to meet face-to-face, pandemic-permitting.
The agreement to extend the contract comes with two notable changes. The 2.9% cost of living adjustment police had expected will be pushed to next year. Cathy Bless, director of the city’s human resources bureau, told the Council this would save the city about $3 million.
The city had already asked non-union employees to forego the annual raise as COVID-19 has devastated government budgets.
And the police union has agreed not to oppose the new Portland Street Response pilot program.
Portland Street Response, a program spearheaded by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office, will send non-armed first responders to answer emergency calls related to people experiencing homelessness.
Before the protests began, that program was poised to begin with a budget of $500,000 and one pilot team in the Lents neighborhood. After the city reworked its budget in response to calls to cut funding from the police, the program ended up with an additional $4.8 million — enough for up to six pilot teams. City leaders are still deciding which neighborhoods to which the programs will expand.
The city's police union has expressed skepticism of the program in the past. Last fall, Daryl Turner, head of the union, said he believed the program was "built on a false premise and perception that Portland Police officers are ill-suited to address mental health and homelessness issues in a constructive and safe manner."
Because the job requirements laid out for the first responders working with the Portland Street Response would overlap with the responsibilities of police officers, the program became a bargaining issue, and the union potentially could have hampered the fledgling program.
But, according to Wednesday’s agreement, the police union will allow the program to grow to six teams and continue unheeded during the pilot phase. What happens after that will be determined in future negotiations.
“The PPA retains its collective bargaining rights over any implementation of the Portland Street Response program beyond the pilot program,” reads the agreement.
Street Roots, a Portland-based newspaper and nonprofit, came up with idea for the street response program last year. Kaia Sand, the head of Street Roots, said she saw Wednesday's agreement as a short-term victory. She said the advocacy organization would fight to ensure police have no involvement in future iterations of the program.
“Having the police union back off the pilot is a legitimate win,” Sand said. “But then there’s this always this sense of the long road.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the police union's agreement with regards to the Portland Street Response program. It has agreed not to oppose the program in its pilot phase.