Mending the Gap 

The Hunt for a Police Reform Monitor Is Back on Course

PORTLAND'S HUNT for a federal police reform monitor—on hiatus since March after mental health advocates said they felt shut out—has quietly resumed after a Mercury report earlier this month looking into the delay.

After easing tensions among advocates, the city's now hoping to have its monitor in place sometime in August, according to interviews with officials and documents reviewed by the Mercury. That's two months later than officials had expected when soliciting applicants over the winter—and even that revised timeline is still tentative.

Adding to the uncertainty: Some of the eight or so applicants whose résumés made the first cut may no longer be available.

"The candidates have not heard from us for over a month and half," says Joe Wahl, assistant director of the Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights. "We need to make sure they're still interested."

And, in the meantime, the city has invited a handful of advocates to serve on a new panel expected to help vet applications and steer the overall hiring process.

"The goal isn't to start all over again," Wahl says, "but to evaluate what we've done so far and decide how we move this along."

The delay took root in late March, soon after the last of the applications had arrived. About a dozen altogether met minimum standards.

Mental health advocates told Commissioner Amanda Fritz—who's overseeing the process on behalf of Mayor Charlie Hales—that they felt left out of the recruitment work despite city promises they'd be included.

And that's no small issue. The US Department of Justice, in calling for reforms way back in 2012, specifically found Portland police officers had engaged in an unconstitutional pattern or practice of using force against people perceived to have mental illness. The reform monitor, known in city jargon as the "compliance officer/community liaison" (COCL), is supposed to check on the police bureau's progress.

Fritz and Wahl quickly added Kristi Jamison, a member of the city's disabilities commission, to an initial screening panel. But deeper concerns emerged that the candidate pool was too small and not sufficiently experienced with mental health [Hall Monitor, News, June 4]. Sources say the candidate pool seemed more familiar with working on issues related to biased policing and racial justice.

The city publicly insists its pool of applicants is sufficient. But it has privately acknowledged it could have done more to make sure mental health groups were actively recruiting potential candidates.

"There was nobody who inspired confidence," Jamison says.

The delay hasn't sat well with everyone. Jo Ann Hardesty, who served on the first screening panel, cited the Mercury's reporting in a stinging letter to city hall.

Hardesty said she didn't even realize the process had been held up. And she also disputes the idea that the monitor must specialize solely in mental health—pointing out that the proposed reforms also reference racial justice.

"It's a false argument to have either/or," she says.

But Hardesty says she's especially concerned that further delay means the police bureau will go on making changes it says are tied to federal reforms—without anyone outside the bureau actually checking to see if that's the case.

"There's a disconnect at city hall," Hardesty says. "It appears police reform has been turned over to [Chief Mike] Reese."

The Mercury has since learned that the next committee to help vet candidates will attempt to bridge what had loomed as a divide between police accountability advocates who have, for years, been publicly united. One potential member? Avel Gordly, the first African American woman elected to the Oregon Senate—and someone whose son has been hospitalized with mental illness and been shot by police, with a beanbag gun.

Hardesty says she sees room for "common ground." And so do mental health advocates. They all agree on the need for "culturally competent" mental health treatment—suggesting that a lack of available, comfortable services might be one reason (but certainly not the only one) African American men are disproportionately counted in police contacts.

"We should be allies," Jamison says. "Everybody is affected by mental health."

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