Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

IT WAS HEALTHY to finally hear Portland city commissioners publicly, and stridently, question one of the most vexing elements in the police bureau's contract with its rank-and-file union: a generous rule giving cops who are under investigation two full days to get their stories straight before answering to internal affairs.

The commissioners' questions came in the middle of an uncomfortable December 3 hearing all about a consultant's latest report on how the Portland Police Bureau learns (or doesn't) from police shootings ["The Unexamined Life," News, Nov 26]. One of the consultant's most pointed recommendations—issued for the second time since 2012—was doing away with the 48-hour rule.

That protection is prized by the Portland Police Association (PPA), which worries that traumatized cops in deadly force cases might wind up the targets of politicized witch-hunts.

And the police bureau has tolerated it out of convenience. Because shootings are also investigated by detectives and prosecutors, the bureau shies away from ordering internal affairs statements to hedge against the chance those statements might leak over into the brewing criminal case. (Never mind that plenty of other agencies have figured out how not to let that contamination happen.)

But more convincingly, critics see the rule as a way for cops to concoct favorable accounts of troubling incidents—increasing the perception, fair or not, that the city's police discipline system is tilted against accountability and transparency.

"This 48-hour rule needs to be flushed out," Commissioner Dan Saltzman said sensibly before voting to accept the report on December 3. "I'd like to see that addressed head-on in our next contract negotiations."

Earlier in the hearing, Commissioner Nick Fish had engaged the bureau's detectives commander, George Burke, and its assistant chief of investigations, Donna Henderson, in a lawyerly exchange neither seemed to eager to join. Fish had heard Henderson lament that the clause was a problem—and put his finger on a telling disconnect.

"What's the bureau's view of the value of that clause?" Fish asked. "You can't have things in a contract unless two parties agree to it."

"I don't know what happened in those negotiations," Henderson answered.

That was before Burke tried blaming the Portland Bureau of Human Resources (BHR) and its labor negotiation team—never mind that several senior officers, including assistant chiefs, typically sit at the bargaining table shoulder to shoulder with BHR.

But as important as the discussion was, it comes far too late to make an immediate difference.

The city approved a four-year contract with the Portland Police Association last December that left the 48-hour clause intact—despite hearing criticisms from consultants and advocates for years, and despite a new police commissioner, Charlie Hales, who campaigned in 2012 on a promise to do away with it.

Moreover, the framing of the council's discussion on the 48-hour rule—focused on deadly force incidents—misses a larger point.

A close reading of the PPA's contract, section, makes clear that the 48-hour rule doesn't just apply to serious matters like shootings and in-custody deaths.

It applies each and every time a cop's facing punishment—over allegations of excessive force or improper use of a Taser or dishonesty or harassment—incidents that almost certainly wouldn't leave a cop too traumatized to remember what happened and when.

It also doesn't just apply to cops directly accused of misconduct. Cops who merely witnessed potential misconduct are afforded the same grace period under the contract.

In some ways—because shootings are so rare and because those other allegations are relatively more common—those investigations are perhaps more important to the credibility of the bureau.

But right now, whenever cops are accused of kicking someone one too many times... or zapping someone one too many times... or using racial slurs... on and on, those cops will have two days to get their stories straight.