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Friday, December 21, 2012

Judge Promises Public Hearing on Portland Police Reforms

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Fri, Dec 21, 2012 at 1:14 PM

The federal judge presiding over Portland's deal with the US Department of Justice on a wide-ranging set of police and mental health reforms has promised a public hearing on the agreement next year where community members can share doubts and concerns.

US District Court Judge Michael Simon gave his decision during a brief hearing this morning on the proposed reform deal, the first since the city and the feds officially filed it in court earlier this week. He said he'd be "open" to holding hearings at night and on weekends. He broke from decorum by inviting community members to speak. And he committed himself to "processes that are fully transparent" in pursuit of a deal that's "fair, adequate and reasonable"—exceeding the hopes of activists clamoring for another check-in on the deal.

"This is so much better than we expected," JoAnn Hardesty, who sits on the steering committee of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, said after court.

Simon also took up the Portland Police Association's request to intervene in the case as a defendant. He mentioned the same appellate court decision PPA lawyer Anil Karia invoked in his court papers filed on Tuesday. In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals let the Los Angeles Police Protective League sit in as a defendant in a federal case because of the way proposed changes might affect its labor contract.

The judge told the city and the feds they had until January 22 to answer the union's request. But Simon also twice declared that the city and the Justice Department are free to "voluntarily" start implementing their deal in the meantime.

"If the parties voluntarily wish to engage in some action that they both agree upon, then that's not for the court to reject—at least, absent a motion for some kind of injunctive relief," Simon said. "It wouldn't have the blessing of the court until they apply for and receive such permission. But nothing prevents those parties from voluntarily doing something."

Simon promised to rule on any stay, if it's requested, "very rapidly." Asked outside court whether the PPA would formally seek one, President Daryl Turner told the Mercury declined to comment.

City Attorney Jim VanDyke confirmed city officials are looking forward to moving ahead with the settlement, even before its made final—the transition in city hall between Mayor Sam Adams and Mayor-elect Charlie Hales notwithstanding. He said the city has told the PPA it wants to bargain over some of the proposed changes.

Karia told Simon he's particularly worried about tweaks that tighten the police bureau's Taser and use of force policies and argued that any change the city makes now would violate the union's contract with the city. He also supplied a long list of concerns in court papers.

"The association's' general concern," Karia said, "is we're letting the proverbial cart get before the horse."

Accountability advocates, for a different reason, also are concerned about the city rushing ahead into changes without waiting for the court's blessing and guidance. Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman pointed out the city is already looking to hire an overseer for the federal deal, without letting many people know about or contribute to the posted job description.

Simon said community groups like the AMA would have until January 8 to file their own requests to intervene in the legal proceedings. He also gave any community member interested a January 22 deadline for submitting their thoughts and suggestions on how a hearing should work, how comments should be collected and shared, and how the hearing should be publicized.

"It seems advisable to me to hold a fairness hearing," Simon said, also warning "that hearing must not be turned into a trial."

Michael Rose, an attorney for the AMA, said the group plans on filing a request to intervene next month. And he said the course the judge was charting was a "very reasonable and sane way of getting through this morass."

Despite the weighty issues in play, Simon set the tone for a fairly feelgood session. Lawyers for the city, the Justice Department, and the union all had good things to say about letting the public weigh in. The next hearing, where Simon will consider the PPA's request as well as any others that might come in, is set for 9 AM on February 19.

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