Portland police oversight board may head to November ballot

Protests

Measure proposed draws pushback from elected auditor, others, citing lack of process.

Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty speaks to protestors during a candlelight vigil to support Portlanders’ rights to free speech and assembly at the Multnomah County Justice Center on July 17, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Zane Sparling/Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — The Portland City Council on Wednesday, July 29, will consider letting voters set up an independent commission to oversee misconduct investigations of the Portland police officers. But the pace of the move and a lack of public hearings is causing concerns.

Portland’s civilian oversight office has been beefed up several times since the first one was formed in 1982. Today, the city’s Independent Police Review unit employs a hybrid system, using civilian investigators to conduct a portion of misconduct complaints, while allowing the police bureau to investigate others. Recommendations for discipline are forwarded to a review board set up by the Portland Police Bureau and then the chief before the mayor imposes final discipline. 

If approved, the measure advanced by City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty would set up a commission of undetermined size, give it broad powers to investigate complaints, compel testimony by officers and impose discipline. It also would provide guaranteed funding pegged at 5% of the bureau’s budget.

Among the unanswered questions: Who, if anyone, would have the power to remove members of the commission who aren’t doing their jobs.

Before taking office in 2019, Hardesty had long called for independent police oversight. She crafted the measure based on private meetings with selected community groups. She has placed the measure on the July 29 Council agenda, giving it just enough time to make the November ballot.

“We need a truly independent police oversight board with subpoena power, with the ability to compel testimony, with a budget so that they can investigate misconduct complaints,” she said at a July 23 press conference.

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Portland’s elected auditor, Mary Hull Caballero, oversees the city’s current system. She has been pressing for more transparency, which would require changes to the police union contract and state law. She said that, because Hardesty has excluded her from the discussions, she’s had to use the auditor’s website to counter mischaracterizations and to raise questions about the proposed charter change.

The ballot measure has been moving at “breakneck speed,” Hull Caballero said, noting that her own ballot measure to increase her office’s independence from the city took more than 18 months to be finalized. The time was used to solicit feedback, to address criticisms and to weigh pros and cons. 

Without that sort of policy analysis, “you get bad policy,” Hull Caballero said. 

“These are big important decisions that the community should get to weigh in in on in a thoughtful way, and that is not the process that has been engaged,” she said.

Akin Blitz, an attorney with Bullard Law, represents city governments seeking to overcome union resistance to discipline of officers. After reviewing Hardesty’s charter proposal, he called it “ill-conceived” and likely to compound existing problems with the system.

“The absolute reality over years has been that the discipline process is so extended, takes so long, involves city attorneys and HR staff, ” he said. “Often the advice is wrong, the process flawed — and that’s why arbitrators reverse and reinstate (discipline, including firings, placed on officers). This board will be exponentially worse.”

Hardesty, for her part, dismisses the criticism.

“Is it moving too fast? After 30 years of community requests for a truly independent police oversight board?” she said. “I would say ‘no.’” 

She said the measure amounts to a “framework,” after which the city would have 18 months to develop more detailed city code.

Dan Handelman, a volunteer with Portland Copwatch, a group set up to call for independent civilian oversight of police, said he is pleased that the proposal would address his group’s long-standing criticisms of Portland’s oversight system. But, he said, the city may not be able to get around legal barriers to the measure. 

“We’ll have to see what happens,” he said.

One of the concerns raised by critics such as Hull Caballero is that changes to the City Charter — essentially Portland’s Constitution — take time and are hard to achieve. 

A 2016 measure to set up independent police oversight in Oakland, for instance, led to years of turmoil and criticism of the police commission there, according to media accounts. Handelman said the coverage he’s seen indicates the new Oakland commission “was kind of a disaster … because they didn’t go slowly enough.”

But Handelman said such concerns seem unlikely to win the day in Portland. His sense is that “the flavor in the community is that I think people want to see change.”

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