THANKS TO a tentative legal settlement announced last month by Mayor Sam Adams and the US Department of Justice (DOJ), real change is finally supposed to be coming to a Portland Police Bureau found guilty of using excessive force against citizens enduring mental illness.
The general terms go something like this: (slightly) more civilian oversight, (vaguely) tighter policies on the use of weapons like Tasers, and a (still uncertain) pledge of improved mental health care facilities.
But is that document, as currently constructed, actually going to deliver on those promises? Probably not, according to the advocates and skeptics who showed up at city hall for a lengthy hearing last Thursday, November 1, and poked a series of large holes in a deal Adams had hailed as "watershed."
And it might wind up even more watered down once labor negotiators get their hands on it.
Already, critics say there's no court-appointed monitor who can boss the city around. Discipline decisions in deadly force cases still can't be appealed and still aren't open to the public. Tasers, painful 50,000-volt stun guns, can still be used against passive resisters.
Worse, the feds have told the city attorney's office that no one is allowed to discuss the details of negotiations.
Tom Steenson, a longtime civil rights attorney, said he spent hours giving the feds his thoughts on "best practices" but was dismayed to see so little of that work reflected in the current agreement.
"We were not involved in the negotiations," he testified. "We don't know whether the DOJ said those were bad ideas or whether the city said, 'We're just not going to do that.'"
Adams, at the end of the hearing, promised to make fixes—changes that would then need to be renegotiated with the feds. That's a good step, if they're substantive, and we expect to see some of those proposals this Thursday, November 8.
But there's another negotiating partner no one's really acknowledging: the Portland Police Association (PPA).
After the hearing, PPA counsel Anil Karia huddled privately with one of his city counterparts, Stephanie Harper. City leaders might think all those "the cops shall" phrases are ironclad. The union? Not so much.
Karia told Harper he wanted to work "constructively" but that he still needs breathing room when contract talks resume next year. Already, he's worried that one of the settlement's centerpieces—stricter limits on the use of force and a new rule requiring cops to explain their decision-making—might not be "trainable."
That's a code word for the status quo: cops fired in fatal shootings always getting their jobs back. And if that's what "real change" ends up looking like? No wonder everyone's so freaked out about what we'll get.