In this divided age of demonstrator versus riot cop and sharp outcry over officer-involved shootings, there appears to be one thing everyone can get behind (besides hating Pepsi, I mean): the fact that the bewildering, dispiriting labyrinth that Portland calls a police oversight system needs big changes.
The process needs to be restructured so that citizens aren’t put off by filing a complaint, or by the crazy-straw route that the complaint takes through the system, or by the interminable process of appealing its outcome.
It needs to be streamlined so that everyone can easily grasp our plan for holding officers accountable. Both the public and powerful city officials are at present often befuddled by its specifics.
And for the love of god, it could use changes that make it so discussions about the subject don’t give Commissioner Dan Saltzman a serious case of the sleepies, which he plainly suffered from during a city council hearing on police oversight last week.
“Our system is hard to explain and harder to navigate,” City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero said at that hearing. “The US Department of Justice has called it ‘byzantine.’”
Now for the bad news: There’s absolutely no indication we’ll get to meaty reforms anytime soon.
Because while anyone will nod emphatically when you ask whether Portland could do better on police oversight, there is sharp disagreement—and the unyielding heft of a powerful police union—blocking the path to serious change.
The latest proof lies in a series of code changes [PDF] the city’s Independent Police Review (IPR) brought before council last week, slated to come up for a vote this Wednesday, April 19.
This was a long-anticipated piece of legislation, in the works for years and designed, in part, to help the city comply with an ongoing settlement with the US Department of Justice. But in its present form, it amounts to only the barest wisp of actual change.
The meatiest tweak, which Portland City Council appears primed to pass, would create a system where minor complaints are forwarded to a cop’s supervisor rather than being formally investigated by IPR or the Portland Police Bureau’s Internal Affairs Unit. That should free up precious staff time to investigate more serious allegations, which is a good thing.
The changes would also ensure that IPR is informed if cops are accused of committing crimes, and bolster the office’s power to request that police investigate an officer’s use of deadly force.
These are fine suggestions, but tiny steps in the right direction. Meanwhile, a host of major (and highly controversial) reforms the Auditor’s Office proposed last year has given way before public outcry and officials’ concerns. Other long-sought changes—such as giving IPR investigators the power to actually force an officer to speak to them—are held at bay by the cops’ union.
So here we are, making small changes by consensus.
That, you might have heard, is the much-vaunted “Portland Way.” And, right now, it’s ensuring that our police oversight system—a vital piece of civic machinery—is merely clunking along.