Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

THE LATEST DEADLINE for legal filings in the feds' police brutality suit against the Portland Police Bureau came and went last week—provoking one more flurry of paperwork meant to help answer one very important issue: whether anyone besides the city or US Department of Justice can alter the controversial deal on mental health and use-of-force reforms the two struck in a rush last year.

Two groups, you might remember, have officially asked for that right. The Portland Police Association (PPA), unsurprisingly, thinks the city should hold contract talks before imposing changes in the police bureau's force and discipline policies. The Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform—an amalgam of black community leaders, and mental health and police accountability advocates—has demanded a renewed focus on race relations.

But in all the paperwork filed last week, something was missing.

While the feds and the city both answered the PPA's request, filling page after page, neither spent any substantive time addressing the AMA's request. It spoke volumes, and advocates and observers certainly noticed.

Was it merely an oversight? A slap meant to show how little the government thought of the group's request? Or something else?

"I think they're scared," says a close observer. "Scared to upset the African American community."

That's not as presumptuous as it might seem. The city and the feds clearly don't want anyone else making fundamental changes to the reform package decided last fall. But rather than risk rankling the black community by putting that in words—literally writing down that they don't think anything more should change in the cops' approach to racial issues—why not make the same point by saying nothing at all. It's a safer way of not saying yes.

The city and feds clearly don't feel that way about the PPA. The PPA isn't a community group. It's one more seasoned player in a game where everyone has a defined role.

What's interesting, in the PPA's case, is where the feds and the city diverge. The feds weren't having any part of the union's request.

But the city? It's willing to let the PPA in at the very end of the legal process. Letting the union in, even as a partial intervenor, would allow it to appeal whatever settlement ultimately wins approval.

That's not just pure charity, however. The two sides share some mutual interest, and that's worth pointing out.

"The city and the PPA are not at odds regarding the underlying theory of liability," the city wrote. "In addition, while the PPA and the city have not always seen eye to eye on matters of officer discipline, PPA does [not] offer any suggestion that the city has failed to defend officers in court when claims of excessive force have been raised."

Because the city and the union both agree, you see, that our cops haven't actually done anything wrong.