Dirk VanderHart

Let’s all take a minute to give it up for the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition (AMA).

For more than a decade, the group has scrutinized the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), digging down into the minutiae of police policies and cranking out treatises on them with some regularity. And last week, coalition member Portland Copwatch revealed some truly concerning changes to those rules, stepping in where Mayor Ted Wheeler should have acted.

It turns out that police are on the verge of quietly reinstating a stronger version of the 48-hour rule, a much-loathed provision that gave officers two days following a shooting before explaining their actions to internal affairs investigators.

That’s a big deal, and it’s something the community shouldn’t have had to wait for Copwatch to unearth.

Let’s rewind. Last year, then-Mayor Charlie Hales paid dearly to be rid of the 48-hour rule. In a deal he considered a distinct triumph, the mayor inked a new contract with the city’s main police union that, in part, gave officers a 9 percent raise in exchange for the provision to disappear.

The upshot was that officers could be compelled to give statements to internal affairs investigators immediately after shooting someone—progress that advocates and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) had pressed for.

The deal wasn’t without its costs for Hales. He’d slayed a dragon that had eluded other leaders, but earned ire from community members who didn’t think the police contract went far enough.

Now, though, it turns out Hales might have achieved far less than it appeared.

Portlanders learned last week that Multnomah County DA Rod Underhill’s office issued a memo in March that called into question the city’s process for investigating shootings. By forcing officers to give statements to internal investigators—who are only trying to figure out if cops followed city rules—Underhill’s office argued the PPB risked violating their Fifth Amendment rights. That could make it impossible to prosecute the officer, should a grand jury find they’d committed a crime in the shooting.

Underhill has reportedly brought the DOJ around to this way of thinking, and his reasoning could spur the PPB to adopt new rules stipulating that internal affairs investigators would wait until a criminal inquiry is closed to interview cops who’ve shot someone. That could take a month or more.

Not everyone agrees with this stance. Constantin Severe, director of the city’s Independent Police Review, issued a memo of his own in June raising questions and calling for more in-depth analysis.

But the city has quietly followed Underhill’s lead. Internal investigators, for instance, didn't interview Samson Ajir, the Portland officer who killed 24-year-old Terrell Johnson in May, until June 23.

Whether that’s right or wrong, the fact that this conversation—and these hugely important changes—happened via a backchannel should give us all pause.

Wheeler came into office preaching the gospel of police reform, and excoriating the 48-hour rule. But he conveniently forgot to mention it when the rule came roaring back under his watch several months ago.

The mayor owed the city that kind of transparency. Instead, it was the AMA that cleared the fog.

CORRECTION: This piece has been changed to reflect that internal affairs investigators interviewed Officer Samson Ajir on June 23. We initially reported he hadn't been interviewed yet.