Recipe for the Status Quo? 

Doubts, Questions Linger as Vote on Police Reforms Draws Near

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A CONTROVERSIAL BLUEPRINT for federally mandated fixes to the Portland Police Bureau and the region's mental health system has taken its final shape—after Mayor Sam Adams finally revealed a long-awaited funding plan for the reforms, as well as a series of tweaks meant to tamp down community concerns that the changes still don't go far enough.

Adams unveiled the adjustments just before a contentious Portland City Council meeting on Thursday, November 8—the second one since Adams stood at a news conference last month and first announced a tentative legal settlement with the US Department of Justice over our cops' unconstitutional use of force against the mentally ill ["But Does It Have Teeth?" News, Nov 1]. Then, late the following day, Adams released a surprise plan for a new phone tax meant to provide some of the millions in new spending the settlement will require.

As of press time, Portland City Council was scheduled to approve the agreement and consider the phone tax during hearings this Wednesday, November 14, and Thursday, November 15, setting up one last showdown with advocates, attorneys, and other skeptics who remain unconvinced the settlement will live up to its promise.

"Will we be able to fire bad police officers? Will the community trust when they call the police that they'll be helped rather than killed or hurt? Has the culture of the Portland Police Bureau changed?" JoAnn Hardesty, a member of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, testified after Adams' amendments were detailed during last week's hearing. "This settlement agreement does not get us there."

Adams has hailed the first draft of the agreement as a "watershed" moment for the city, touting plans for improved police training, increased civilian oversight, and tighter limits on when and how officers can use force. A new 15-member citizens board will be conjured to oversee the agreement, along with a new community liaison, and the city has promised to add several new investigators to speed up use-of-force probes currently lost in the shuffle of what the feds call a "Byzantine" accountability system.

But after community members first complained the agreement wasn't strong enough—arguing it was filled with loopholes that may yet allow, for example, the use of Tasers against the mentally ill—Adams huddled with his fellow commissioners and went back to the feds to negotiate a handful of changes. Among them:

• Any officer rapped for the inappropriate use of force in a civil lawsuit in the past five years will be banned from serving as police trainers—joining cops found guilty of misconduct in internal probes.

• The new citizens panel will no longer include the five members of the city's current Community and Police Relations Committee, who will continue to work on issues involving racial bias. Mental health professionals or people who have direct experience with mental health issues would instead fill those spots.

• Any future changes to force policies covered by the settlement with the feds must be posted for public comment before they're made final.

Adams and the feds, however, refused to budge on one frequently aired community demand—whether control of the bureau should be turned over to an independent civilian panel with the power to conduct its own investigations and mete out its own officer discipline.

Critics, though they welcomed some of the mayor's other changes, call that a glaring omission that undermines the rest of the agreement.

"As long as we have a system where police are investigating police, we're never going to get the kind of police bureau we want," said Greg Kafoury, an attorney who specializes in misconduct cases. "When an officer brutalizes someone, he knows what he's doing. All we're doing is spinning our wheels."

Advocates also are still demanding that Police Review Board hearings, which influence discipline decisions, be opened to the public. And they want more time for the Citizen Review Committee, the city panel that handles appeals of misconduct findings, to do its work.

Although they're poised to approve the deal, even some city commissioners have confessed doubts. One concern is that more money should be spent on preventive social services than reactive public safety. Another is that the deal is too complicated.

"It's alphabet soup," City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who initially called for the federal investigation alongside Adams in 2010, said last week, confessing he's "not sure how this improves accountability."

Reminded he has the power to compel further changes as a voting commissioner, he replied: "Do I?"

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