Changing up the city's system for police oversight has been a herky-jerky process of late.
Last year, when the City Auditor's Office cooked up a host of code changes that would've dramatically reshaped that labyrinthine system—and, Auditor Mary Hull Caballero argued, help the city comply with a federal settlement—it was met with a wall of opposition.
As we reported at the time, members of the city's police-hawking Citizen Review Committee took umbrage with a change that would have moved the system further out of the public eye. And when the auditor's office scrapped that bit, even the remaining proposals got a tepid response from a City Hall that at the time was forming up a controversial contract with the city's largest police union.
So on Thursday, the auditor's office will try again. It's slated to bring a watered down set of changes to the city code [PDF] dealing with the city's Independent Police Review (IPR).
Update, 7:40 pm: The ordinance has been rescheduled for April 13.
"It’s a much more conservative package than it was in September," says IPR Director Constantin Severe. "That was dead in the water."
Last year's proposed changes would have taken steps to limit how much say an officer's direct supervisor has in disciplining that officer over a citizen complaint—an aspect of the police discipline process that became a flashpoint in at least one instance last year. They would have modified the structure of the Citizen Review Committee (CRC), which hears the pleas of citizens who want to appeal how their complaints have been handled. And they would have cut out the public's ability to testify at those appeal hearings.
All of that's gone now. The most notable tweak to city code being floated on Thursday is the formal codification of a "supervisory investigation," in which ultra-low-level complaints are handled by an officer's supervisor, as opposed to by investigators at IPR or the police bureau's Internal Affairs unit.
Severe uses the hypothetical example of a citizen complaint that an officer was rude because of the way he hooked his thumbs inside his vest, which Severe says is in line with some complaints that come in. Rather than taking up investigatory time, the idea is that the complaint could be forwarded to that officer's sergeant, freeing up time for more serious complaints.
The code changes would also move the public comment period at CRC hearings. Currently, audience members have an opportunity to speak before the body begins a hearing on whether an officer should be disciplined. The new proposal would shift comments to after the hearing.
And notably, the ordinance keeps an item from September, which mandates that the director of IPR be notified when there's information a police bureau member "has engaged in conduct that may be subject to criminal and/or administrative investigation." That language has at least some roots in the time former Police Chief Larry O'Dea shot his friend, but no one bothered to mention it to IPR.
"This is the beginning of the city kind of making a choice about these kind of accountability measures," Severe says. He describes the creation of Portland's system of police accountability as piecemeal, taking on new provisions here and there, without much concern for creating a cohesive whole. "This is the beginning of creating an accountability system that is global in perspective."
He argues the changes will reduce redundancies and increase his investigators' ability to process complaints. But he also acknowledges that bolder suggestions got stripped out if they didn't have buy in from the police bureau, the Portland Police Association, or the public.
"Given that Portland works a lot on consensus... we weren't able to put them in this particular code change," Severe says. "We’re basically acting as scriveners here."
But as these things so frequently are, the proposal has already been met with opposition from the group Portland Copwatch, which today sent along a lengthy set of critiques, and urged city council to "modify or postpone" a vote on the ordinance. The group opposes putting citizen testimony after appeal hearings on police discipline.
"Taking away public input before votes at the CRC will be a serious blow to the system's credibility," Copwatch says in the letter.
The group also wants the CRC expanded from 11 to 15 members in order to ease strain on members, among other things.