A YEAR AGO, Portland's long-awaited police reforms finally looked like they were ready for action.
In August 2014, two years after federal investigators found that city cops disproportionately beat up people in mental health crises, a federal judge approved a settlement between the city and US Department of Justice (DOJ)—77 pages that would dictate how the police bureau rights itself in coming years.
A couple of months later, Mayor Charlie Hales and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz tapped a group of Chicago academics to oversee the deal, and helped choose a community board that would work independently to ensure Portland citizens had a real say in the process.
That group—called the Community Oversight Advisory Board, or COAB—was a national first. Though the DOJ has reached similar settlements over police abuses in cities around the country, none of them had a community-oriented group like the COAB that invited people with a wide variety of viewpoints and life experiences to help shape reforms.
But this uniquely Portland approach is sort of a disaster at the moment.
A police officer on the board is currently accusing three community members of “gross misconduct,” and hinting he'd like to have them dismissed. One of those community members has lodged a complaint of his own against the group's chairwoman, longtime diversity advocate Kathleen Saadat.
Meanwhile, the group has shed members regularly since it began meeting in February. Even with those people being replaced by alternates, it's been difficult at times for its subcommittees to reach the quorums required for any real progress.
“Right now, just saying we're not ready to tear each other's throats out is a challenge,“ COAB member Bud Feuless said at a recent meeting of the group's small executive board. “That would be a nice change.”
The stakes are high for Portland. If the COAB's able to settle its internal tensions, the city could be a model for other cities wanting to involve community members in police reform. If the COAB can't work it out, it's potentially a huge setback in the push for a better police force.
“The current system doesn't work,” says Tom Steenson, a Portland attorney and COAB member, who's both filed a complaint and been the subject of one in recent months. “Can we put a better system together? I assume we can.”
As conceived by the DOJ settlement, the COAB consists of 15 voting members and five nonvoting alternates, all volunteers. It also includes five police officers, also nonvoting, who act as advisors about police procedure.
Combined with its pay to the Chicago academics overseeing reform, the city has budgeted nearly $850,000 for the effort this year.
The COAB has struggled almost since its first meeting in February. By mid-April, two members had already quit—along with the initial COAB chair, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, who left for health reasons. Others were demanding an apology from the Portland City Attorney's Office, complaining they weren't given an adequate understanding of their roles.
Some things have improved since then. The group's lost four more members, but the COAB's also successfully coordinated community surveys about the police, and begun recommending changes to police bureau policies. Still, every scrap of progress is hard won.
That's reflected in the recent claims of Officer Paul Meyer, a COAB advisor who sits on a subcommittee recommending changes to the Portland Police Bureau's rules governing how police can use force on citizens. The group's work is among the more important tasks the COAB will complete.
In late October, Meyer filed complaints against three fellow members of the subcommittee—Steenson, local psychologist Rochelle Silver, and Philip Wolfe, a Portland artist—alleging they'd deliberately altered and omitted his written critiques to the changes they want to see in the use-of-force rules.
In a list of recommendations the group submitted October 6, Meyer says, his input on issues like use of chokeholds and police de-escalation was substantially changed. In some cases, Meyer accuses Steenson and the others of claiming they'd heard no opposition to recommendations he'd expressly criticized.
“If my words and work are going to be edited, deleted, and censored without my knowledge and my consent, why should I say anything?” Meyer said at a COAB meeting on October 22. “Why am I here?”
Meyer says Silver, Wolfe, and Steenson all committed misconduct by misrepresenting his words. That's enough to get them tossed from the COAB altogether if members of the Chicago team and DOJ attorneys agree. The three deny the complaints, saying they fairly represented Meyer's comments, and blame the controversy on a misunderstanding.
There's another problem, though: The COAB has no process for even resolving Meyer's complaints. And when Steenson suggested that the group come together to think one up, Saadat, the group's chair, said it was her job to create those rules, not the COAB's.
That inspired Steenson to file his own complaint against Saadat. He and other members have said she's overly stern in her leadership of the group. But Steenson's also suggested the COAB has far deeper problems.
“While many of the problems described here are attributable to the actions of Ms. Saadat,” Steenson wrote in his complaint, “it is not at all clear that replacing Ms. Saadat would rectify the situation.” Steenson tells the Mercury he's not sure anything will.
Others are more optimistic. Deanna Wesson-Mitchell, a former cop who's now Hales' liaison to the committee, says things are getting better.
“This is the first time that it's been done in the nation,” she says. “Taking a year to figure out how we get there doesn't seem so extreme.”
Saadat is bullish, too. While she wouldn't discuss the complaint against her, she told the Mercury that the COAB was hampered by “a rocky start with a lack of good orientation.”
“We're in the storming stages,” she said. “I have faith in this work. I have faith in this process.”