Justice Takes a Breath 

Legal Issues, Budget Woes Slow Police Reforms

LAST FALL'S mad dash for a final deal on federally mandated mental health and use-of-force reforms for Portland cops has slowed dramatically amid a tangle of legal issues and budget woes, city officials now tell the Mercury.

And that means some of the most important provisions in the city's deal with the US Department of Justice—including speedier misconduct investigations, expanded civilian oversight of the bureau, and a drop-off center for people in mental health crisis—may not take effect until later this summer, if then.

A handful of unexpected realities are clouding the picture. The federal judge overseeing the agreement, Michael Simon, has promised a "fairness hearing" on the deal—bowing to demands from community groups—and won't even schedule it until mid-February.

Simon also will weigh requests by the Portland Police Association (PPA) and Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform (AMA) to join the feds' legal case against the city and make changes. (The police union wants a say on training and discipline changes; the AMA is arguing that race should play a bigger part in the deal.)

That's significant, because each legal wrinkle puts off the deal's "effective date"—the wellspring for every other timeline for action laid out in the settlement. Hiring for a new community liaison to oversee the deal, plus the selection of a new 15-member community board—both of which require an intensive public process—may lag for months.

The police union also filed a grievance asking the city to negotiate any changes in discipline and training related to the settlement. That could tie things up, but Police Chief Mike Reese tells the Mercury he's asked the union to weigh in on tightened Taser and use of force policies and hopes to move forward soon. Reese has also assigned a compliance officer within the bureau, Captain Pat Walsh, and made other staffing shifts.

His new boss, Mayor Charlie Hales, backs him up.

"There's no reason to delay doing the right thing," Hales says.

Meanwhile, the city's budget morass—Portland's facing a $25 million deficit—is playing a different sort of havoc. Former Mayor Sam Adams hiked taxes on two landline phone providers to ease some of the expected $5-million-plus cost of reforms. But one of those companies, CenturyLink, has sued the city, throwing that source of cash into question.

Hales says staffing decisions will have to wait until the city's financial picture firms up, sometime this spring.

That means, for example, the city agency charged with probing police misconduct complaints, the Independent Police Review division, (IPR) will have to wait months for cash to add investigators, says director Mary-Beth Baptista. She says the limbo surrounding the deal has also made it hard to recruit for the city panel charged with hearing appeals in misconduct cases, the Citizen Review Committee.

But perhaps the biggest question mark is the fate of a new drop-off center for people in crisis—a joint production by the city, Multnomah County, and the state-level Coordinated Care Organizations charged with implementing federal health care reform—that the feds want open by the middle of this year.

Hales has his doubts, calling it "a very unlikely" timeline, and said he wants to huddle anew with the county to make better use of existing resources.

"I don't know what's been done," Hales said when asked about work on the proposed drop-off center, "if anything."

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