François Vigneault

AFTER NEARLY two years of a rocky, uniquely Portland marriage, a group of well-paid Chicago academics and the local volunteer board overseeing Portland police reforms appear headed for a separation.

“I got a letter from COCL; they want to divorce us!” said Jimi Johnson, of the volunteer Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB), at the group’s monthly meeting last Thursday. “If that’s the case, so be it.”

Johnson was talking about a July 11 petition from Dennis Rosenbaum and Amy Watson—two Chicago-based professors hired to serve as the Compliance Officer-Community Liaison (COCL) under a settlement the City of Portland reached in 2014 with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) over police abuses. After months of fractious meetings plagued by audience outbursts and what they say is the COAB’s “blatant disregard” for their authority, Rosenbaum and Watson now say they see no way to successfully work with the board any longer.

The feeling is mutual.

“I think there are plenty of professionals around the table,” said the COAB’s Mireaya Medina at last week’s meeting. “I think we should be able to choose the person who’ll be our chair.”

Under the current settlement agreement, the COCL is required to chair the COAB, which “gives the COCL pretty much blank authority to run meetings and set agendas,” explained board member Tom Steenson, a prominent civil rights attorney who has been among the COAB members leading the charge for a separation.

Together, the two bodies are tasked with overseeing the implementation of changes to the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) stemming from a DOJ investigation into the bureau’s use of force and mistreatment of mentally ill people. The COCL’s job is to provide “unbiased expert analysis” and quarterly reports. The COAB is supposed to have its 15 members provide “community input” to the COCL and “independently assess implementation” of the agreement.

“How COAB has been operated hasn’t been healthy,” said member Philip Wolfe. Many on the board say the process has been ineffective in changing the bureau for the better—and they point to Rosenbaum and Watson.

“It’s not their fault that they’re from Chicago,” says Portland Copwatch’s Dan Handelman, who’s been closely keeping tabs on police accountability in the city for more than two decades. “But I think that was a mistake and everybody knew it was a mistake from the beginning.”

In recent months, numbers on the COAB have dwindled. On Thursday, the 10 remaining members of the group voted to request the city and DOJ alter their agreement to allow for a court-appointed monitor to replace the COCL. In the wake of the recent resignation by board chair Kathleen Saadat (see her exit report at the bottom), appointed last year, the board also voted to nominate a new chair from within its own membership.

On July 4, Steenson drafted an “open letter” signed by nine of the 10 remaining COAB members, signaling that position. The COCL’s Watson and Rosenbaum cited it in their damning separation petition to the feds a week later. That seven-page petition lays blame for the breakdown of the relationship on perceived disrespect and lack of understanding of the process by COAB members, and outbursts from activists in the crowd that have led to arrests and early meeting adjournments.

“The current COAB structure is not working as intended,” the document says. “We believe the extent of damage done to this point prohibits restoration of the relationship between COCL and COAB. As a result of nearly two years of ambiguity, disrespect, and willful undermining of the COCL’s authority to run the COAB, we are requesting the Settlement Agreement be amended to separate the COCL from the COAB.”

Most in the COAB want a court-appointed monitor instead of the COCL. That’s a move that would partly scuttle the inventiveness of Portland’s plan, putting it in the ranks of other cities the feds have sued over police abuses.

A monitor would be a nationally recognized law enforcement expert who would be given “broad sweeping powers” to talk to the cops, analyze data, ask questions, and “then prepare necessary changes to implement the settlement agreement” based on established best practices, explained Steenson. He cited how Seattle, with a court-appointed monitor, has responded after it was sued by the feds, saying that city’s reforms are the size of “old-fashioned phonebooks with written policy changes and training requirements, highlighted issues, whatever needs to be done.”

Any changes in the settlement agreement must be recommended by the DOJ. If the city agrees, “the Parties shall stipulate to modify the Agreement accordingly.”

Steenson and Wolfe both said they’ve talked to DOJ officials who seem open to the new plan.

“It’s my sense that they are receptive to amendments to fix problems in the existing settlement agreement—I have no idea how the city will view our recommendations if we pass it, or the COCL’s petition to get out of the COCL chair,” said Steenson. The DOJ has been open to reducing COAB’s “overwhelming” responsibilities and replacing the COCL with a court-appointed monitor, he said.

Mayor Charlie Hales’ spokesperson, Sara Hottman, tells the Mercury that Hales “supports any reasonable effort to restructure the COCL and COAB so they are able to effectively implement the DOJ settlement agreement.”

Regarding a potential replacement for Saadat—the COAB wants to tap someone within its ranks instead of a person handpicked by the COCL—Hottman says “the search for a replacement is on hiatus until the role of the COCL team member to chair the COAB is more concretely defined.”

During public comment at the meeting on Thursday, JoAnn Hardesty, president of the Portland Chapter of the NAACP who’s connected with the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, warned members that leading the COAB is a tough and often thankless job.

“I want to remind you that the two people who chaired it both worked 60 to 80 hours a week and both resigned partly because of exhaustion,” she said, referencing Saadat and former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Paul De Muniz before her. “After observing the sheer exhaustion of the staff and the sheer frustration of the community who wants to be heard, I think it’s really important that you COAB members own the COAB process, but I caution you on thinking that as volunteers you can absorb another 60 to 80 hours a week. I think that the reality is that the work you do is critical especially with what’s happening in our country right now, and we cannot afford for you to fail.”

Kathleen Saadat's exit report: