IT'S NOT EASY to sum up the confused muddle of Portland's new push to reform its police bureau, but I'll try numbers.
In four meetings of a citizen board overseeing reforms, there have been two official apologies. The group's one seemingly solid policy vote was just pulled back to make way for more discussion. And it's safe to say all 23 members are frustrated.
"We feel we've been set up to fail," said member Sharon Maxwell, at an April 9 meeting of the Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB). "It's not okay. I'm really upset."
Plenty of cities have been roped into agreements similar to the one Portland faces—a 2012 court settlement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) over abuses on the part of the police department.
But Portland has made the community a touchstone of that agreement. Where in other places a DOJ-appointed monitor oversees reforms, we have two groups: the COAB and a team of Chicago-based researchers, colloquially known as the COCL (compliance officer/community liaison), to make sure the cops are acting in good faith.
It's a beautifully Portland solution to police reform, with ample opportunity for diverse voices to make themselves heard. But as these two groups begin to take their first crucial steps, it's been something of a disaster.
The COAB—made up of 15 voting members, five police bureau officials, and three alternates—is struggling to make even basic decisions, such as who should serve on its subcommittees. The group appeared to have made a substantive choice in March, when it voted to recommend the city hire Portland State University researchers to conduct community surveys about cops. Then it pulled that vote back, with members voicing doubts that PSU could ably collect data.
Worse, there have been numerous threats by committee members to quit over perceived injustices. A central component of the process, former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Paul De Muniz, just dropped out for health reasons. And group members don't seem to trust two people they're supposed to be somewhat reliant on: Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum, a Chicago criminologist who leads the COCL team and serves as the COAB's chair, and Ellen Osoinach, a deputy city attorney on hand to provide legal guidance.
Rosenbaum, tasked with guiding the group, began the April 9 meeting by formally apologizing for what's been a rocky process.
"We hope we can have a fresh start this evening," Rosenbaum said. "It's kind of what we need right now."
Osoinach hadn't planned on apologizing, but was called out by former State Senator Avel Gordly, who said—to widespread agreement—that the city hadn't prepared COAB members to do their jobs.
"We're working with an uneven understanding of the settlement agreement," Gordly said. "It's mind-boggling really."
Osoinach readily apologized, acknowledging city staff had done a poor job preparing the group.
Maybe that's understandable. After all, this is an experiment.
It's also one that can't fail. Because if this tailor-made police reform we've concocted goes down in flames, it's Portland City Hall that will face the legal consequences. And it's the rest of us who'll have to live with them.