City commissioners have voted against defending the city's decision to fire a racist cop in exchange for a guarantee that the officer never works for the city again. It wasn't a decision made lightly.
"There is no good choice to make here today, and the community has every right to be angry," said Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. "I am angry."
In a 4-1 vote, commissioners approved a settlement agreement with the Portland Police Association (PPA) to offer $100,000 in backpay to Gregg Lewis, a former PPB sergeant fired in February 2017 after making a “joke” during a Central Precinct roll call that ended with the comment, “If you come across a Black person, just shoot them.” The comment came three days after a PPB officer fatally shot Quanice Hayes, a Black teenager.
Lewis was fired for these racist remarks by the City of Portland. His termination was quickly challenged by the PPA, a legal move that's entirely allowed under the city's current contract with police union. Based on the city's poor track record with winning cases against the PPA, however, the city attorney's office suggested the council avoid the pending arbitration process. According to deputy city attorney Mark Amburg, that's because a labor arbitrator would probably focus more on Lewis' entire history of misconduct with PPB than the single incident that got him fired.
"As egregious as the conduct was, we have a sergeant with 25-plus years with the bureau.... who has an unblemished career," Amburg told commissioners last Wednesday. "We think there is a significant chance that the arbitrator will overturn the decision."
Instead of engaging in a hopeless (and costly) legal fight, city attorneys suggested that city council simply give Lewis a hefty payout, erase the firing from his record, and let him ease into retirement. In exchange, Lewis wouldn't be allowed to work for the PPB or the city ever again. This agreement, based on discipline standards baked into PPA's contract with the city, is what Eudaly called a "flawed system."
"The public blames us, and to a certain extent that’s reasonable," said Eudaly last week. "But our power has been bargained away."
Neither Eudaly, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, nor Mayor Wheeler were members of city council the last time the PPA's four-year union contract was negotiated in 2016.
Commissioner Nick Fish said he would vote in favor of the decision, "because it saves taxpayer money and because it insures [Lewis] won’t ever work at the city." But he was quick to point out that the city commissioners and attorneys are the only people to blame for this imperfect agreement.
"Politicians are good at blaming other people. But the discipline guide was something we negotiated," Fish said, referring to the 2016 PPA contract. "The punishment that this officer will receive is something we agreed to."
Last week, Amburg noted that labor arbitrators usually side with the police union in these cases. Fish rejected that excuse.
"It's disingenuous to point the finger at the arbitrator," said Fish, calling Amburg's presentation "disjointed" and "muddied." Speaking directly to Mayor Ted Wheeler, Fish said that he believes the city's legal team is outmatched by the PPA's attorneys.
"Mayor, I hope you think boldly about this," Fish said, hinting at the inadequacies of the city's legal team. "I believe in the process but I also believe in a fair fight."
City council was scheduled to vote on this settlement last Wednesday. But, after hearing testimony from family members of Black Portlanders shot by police and strong opposition from Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Wheeler decided to push the vote to today. Hardesty remained the sole vote in opposition to the settlement.
"I would much prefer arbitration," Hardesty said today. "We have a responsibility as a representative government to fight for the people and not just do [what's] most convenient. It is absolutely not right that this man gets one penny extra from the City of Portland."