SURPRISE! Thanks to an "emergency" vote hastily called by Mayor Sam Adams last Wednesday, December 14, what will likely be Portland's last chance for a long time to boost civilian oversight of cops has officially come and gone.
What happened? After weeks of hearings and several back-channel discussions between city commissioners and advocates, well... not much. No drug tests for cops who injure or kill someone. No new limits on when and how cops use force. And few new powers for the Citizen Review Committee (CRC), a volunteer panel currently charged with adjudicating appeals of police misconduct cases.
(While some other cities' citizen panels can make their own findings on misconduct cases, ours remains limited to checking over the work of police and Independent Police Review [IPR] investigators.)
Which leaves us almost exactly where the discussion first began in November, when Adams and City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade issued reports rejecting all but a handful of suggestions that advocates had been pushing for months, if not years in many cases.
But now, advocates worry if even that "do little" approach is still true. In an 11th-hour amendment pushed by Adams, the CRC actually lost some flexibility when it comes to handling new information that emerges in appeals hearings. Instead of using that information to directly modify rulings on misconduct cases, it must now send that information back to the police or IPR for further review and then hold another hearing.
Becky Straus of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon called the change "unnecessary and problematic to the independent functioning of the CRC."
Adams' office insists the change actually "enhances" the CRC's role by codifying vague procedures. But, tellingly, neither the CRC nor the IPR said they had pushed Adams for the change. And the change was proposed just days before the December 14 vote—a vote that officials like IPR Director Mary-Beth Baptista, even that day, had assumed would wait until January for more discussion.
The fallout from Adams' change to the CRC probably won't be as dire as advocates say. But the dispute on what's ultimately a wonky point is emblematic of how city council has handled the whole affair.
Advocates hoped for something "transformational." They didn't get it—they never really had a chance to make their case—even though Adams says he can't "remember an issue in my time that we spent more time talking about and thinking about."
So, now city hall and the Portland Police Bureau will pat themselves on the back. And Adams offered a solution to anyone who doesn't like it: the ballot box. He noted that Griffin-Valade, who oversees the IPR, is "independently elected." And "I have to stand for reelection as well."
Except, next year, he isn't.