PORTLAND, Oregon -- A police oversight proposal that advocates for police accountability said Portland officials had “shredded” advanced Wednesday over the advocates’ objections.
The move by the Portland City Council to accept a weakened version of the volunteer Police Accountability Commission’s police oversight system comes three years after 82% of Portland voters approved Measure 26-217, to create a civilian-run police oversight board that would investigate all complaints of officer misconduct and impose discipline when appropriate.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler on Wednesday defended the changes, which would include stripping the oversight board of the ability to hold public investigative hearings and reducing the number of people who would serve on the board from 33 to 21. The city’s version of the proposal also would place three police representatives on a committee responsible for nominating board members.
“I understand there’s frustration by some that the PAC recommendations may not have been adopted in totality,” Wheeler said. “However, as we’ve heard, many of these recommendations, when consistent with the charter and the law, have been maintained.”
Those include the proposed board’s subpoena powers, its budget equal to 5% of the Portland Police Bureau’s annual spending and its prohibition against having current or former police officers – or their immediate family members – on the board.
Voters approved Measure 26-217 in November 2020, and in 2021 the city launched the 20-person Police Accountability Commission, which then held more than 120 public meetings and 23 community events to solicit feedback on a new oversight system.
In September, the City Council-appointed group submitted its 96-page proposal to city leaders for review.
City attorneys then edited the proposal, reducing it to 27 pages of city code. One significant change they put forward would prohibit any person with a bias for or against law enforcement from becoming a board member.
On Wednesday, Commissioner Carmen Rubio introduced two amendments to slightly tweak the city attorneys’ changes. The first would place two members of the city’s independent Citizen Review Committee on the nominating committee for the board instead of one. The second would change the wording of the prohibition against biased board members, swapping the phrase “demonstrated bias” with “objective demonstration of bias” to match language in the city’s 2014 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice mandating police reforms in Portland.
“I don’t know that we got it 100% right or that this code language is perfect, only time will tell us that,” Rubio said. “While not perfect as we all acknowledged, I do believe that this package allows the city attorney’s office to continue the work in seeing that we get this right.”
City leaders now must discuss the proposal with the Justice Department and U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon, who oversees the city’s federally mandated police reforms stemming from the 2014 settlement.
The public also has 30 days to submit additional feedback. During that time, Wheeler has directed city attorneys to hear concerns from members of the Police Accountability Commission.
After 30 days, the city attorney’s office will negotiate with the Justice Department to make sure the oversight proposal complies with the settlement and any requirements of collective bargaining agreements with the police union.
If the court approves the amendments, the City Council will have 21 days to adopt them. Within a year of that deadline, the city must implement the city code and the board must start investigating complaints.
More than 60 people signed up Wednesday to testify on the city’s changes to the Police Accountability Commission’s proposal.
Some criticized what they saw as an “anti-police agenda” by the Police Accountability Commission and urged the City Council to focus on improving the city’s security.
“As a mother, it’s been extremely difficult to trust that my kids are safe riding the MAX or going to and from school,” said Evaline McPherson. “There’s thousands of Portlanders that want more safety and actually want more funding for our police force.”
Sgt. Aaron Schmautz, president of Portland’s police union, said in an interview he thought family members of police officers should be allowed to serve as board members. Parts of the original proposal that the city attorney removed, including a provision that would have made all investigatory hearings public, would have made it harder to hire and retain new officers, he said.
“Our officers in this city are human, they deserve due process and they deserve to be held to account for their actions,” Schmautz said. “I just don’t believe that 96-page document that came out was an attempt to hold people accountable – I think it was set up to punish police officers, regardless of what they did.”
Several PAC members also testified and asked the City Council to delay voting until they could meet with them and the city attorney to discuss the edits.
“The work that’s been done has been vital and to change it the way it’s been changed – I must object to it,” said the Rev. Mark Knutsen, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church. “If nothing less, go back to the table with the Police Accountability Commission, but don’t move forward with the proposal from today.”
Dan Handelman, a PAC member, said the PAC commissioners followed the framework the city set for them. “They took this moderate proposal and then shredded it to pieces,” he said in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive.
City commissioners rejected that characterization.
Commissioner Rene Gonzalez said the vote fulfilled the wishes of voters and marked “yet another step toward full compliance” with the Justice Department settlement.
“This is not an easy subject – it is balancing really conflicting pulls at times,” Gonzalez said. “Showing fidelity to the will of the voters is paramount to the resolution today, and I believe that has been achieved.”
Commissioner Dan Ryan said the proposal represented a move toward a more “accountable, transparent and equitable future for every Portlander.”
“I don’t think anyone got everything they wanted, and you could tell by the testimony today,” said Commissioner Dan Ryan. “To me, that means we struck a good balance.”
— Catalina Gaitán, [email protected], @catalinagaitan_
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