On November 3, Portland voters overwhelmingly approved a plan to overhaul the city's current police oversight system, and replace it with a more independent and powerful oversight board made up of community members.
The new board, which will take at least two years to get off the ground, will be granted the authority to mandate officer discipline and compel officer testimony during an investigation—along with other privileges that are currently off limits for people outside of law enforcement. But, despite these significant changes, the new oversight program shares the same basic purpose as the current system, the Independent Police Review (IPR): Review and investigate citizen reports of officer misconduct.
With the voters' approval of the new oversight board, which was first proposed by City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty this summer, the responsibility now lies on Portland City Council to actually create the system intended to replace the 20-year-old IPR. That means appointing a community-led committee to work with city staff to draft the new system's basic structure, guidelines, and breadth, a proposal that will eventually land before city commissioners. This to-be-determined committee, set to dissolve once City Council approves its proposal, will also turn to experts in police oversight and accountability to guide their work.
But there's a catch: The city staff who are perhaps the most enlightened about what works—and what doesn't—within the current oversight system won't be at the table.
According to City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, the IPR's 14 employees aren't allowed to give City Council staffers feedback on plans for the new oversight system. That's because IPR is housed in Hull Caballero's office, which will have the power to audit the new system once it's finalized. She considers this a serious conflict of interest.
"We know that this entity will live outside the auditor's office. That means we will eventually have to audit them," said Hull Caballero. "If our staff helped in creating the new program, it could impact our ability to fairly audit it."
Staff in the auditor's office are currently barred from auditing the IPR, because it's housed in the same department. Hull Caballero said that the IPR is instead audited by Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) internal affairs department.
Hull Caballero said her decision is backed by federal auditing standards, which mandates auditors' independence from departments they audit. She compared this hands-off decision to when voters passed the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF), a business sales tax that funds green energy jobs. After its passage, City Council was tasked with setting up the new system. Hull Caballero said the auditor's office deliberately disengaged with that process, since her staff would be auditing PCEF in the future.
Yet there's little reason people who investigate police misconduct would be called to share their knowledge on facilitating a green jobs tax. For IPR to be called on to inform a new police misconduct system, however, makes a little more sense. But Hull Caballero said the risk of undermining community trust in the auditor's office is too high.
It's a hard line that's stumped police accountability advocates.
On November 4, Hardesty policy advisor Derek Bradley attended a virtual meeting of the Citizen Review Committee (CRC), a group of volunteers who review police accountability policies—among other things. Bradley was invited to give CRC members an idea of what's next for the proposed oversight board, now that the election was over. Bradley made a point to underscore Hull Caballero's decision.
"The auditor has explicitly forbidden all IPR staff from working or talking to us about this," said Bradley. "That's unfortunate because I know a lot of IPR staff have a lot of subject matter expertise in this that I would enjoy getting access to and would lead to an improved product."
Pushed by CRC members to explain this decision, IPR staff at the meeting gave Hull Caballero's reasoning.
"It seems like such an unfortunate missed opportunity," said Sylvan Fraser, a CRC member.
Dan Handleman, founder of police accountability group Portland Copwatch, had stronger words to describe the decision.
"It's completely ridiculous," said Handleman. "I'm really hoping the auditor will let the staff talk to the transition team, otherwise we’ll lose a lot of what’s already known about how you do investigations of police misconduct."
He suggested that the decision was rooted more in political disagreements than an actual concern about the public's trust.
It's no secret Hardesty and Hull Caballero's relationship has been tested by the new oversight system.
Hull Caballero has been critical of Hardesty's proposed oversight board since it was first pitched to the public in late June, weeks after Portland's racial justice protests began. Hull Caballero argues that Hardesty wasn't honest to voters about the top promises of the new system—since several of the desired changes are impossible without a change in Oregon law or a win at the bargaining table with PPB's union. Hardesty, alternately, says that Portlanders can no longer wait for incremental reforms to its accountability system, and that an ambitious overhaul is the only way forward. Portlander voters agreed.
There's one resource that Hull Caballero said she's left for the architects of the new oversight system: A website with links containing information on how IPR currently operates. But most of the linked documents were created before November 3 as opposition arguments against the proposed system.
Hull Caballero wasn't at the CRC meeting, but called Bradley's comments "unnecessarily confrontational." She said that Hardesty's team didn't show interest in IPR's expertise until after the ballot measure passed.
"It was very secretive for a while," said Hull Caballero. "I couldn’t get a meeting with [Hardesty] for the life of me. I find it all very interesting that after the fact, there is this narrative forming that we aren’t going to help them."
She added that, because of the massive influx of police misconduct reports tied to the year's protests, IPR employees don't have time to advise City Council on their looming replacement.
"It's not like they have a ton of free time," said Hull Caballero. "IPR staff are not indentured servants."
There's little chance of changing this decision. Even Mayor Wheeler, a vociferous supporter of the new oversight system, doesn't have the authority to overrule a decision made by the auditor, who holds the only elected office in Portland outside of City Council.
"It’s important that the city put its best talent on the job of implementing the voters’ will," said Wheeler in a statement emailed to the Mercury. "IPR staff likely have important contributions to make towards reform. That said, the independently elected auditor has concerns about what voters approved and she oversees the IPR team. I hope we find a way to address her concerns so the experts at IPR can contribute their knowledge and experience to improve public trust in our police accountability system."
In the meantime, Hardesty's office is focused on other hurdles that could keep the oversight board from moving forward. According to reporting by OPB, Oregon Senator Lew Frederick has agreed to introduce legislation that would create a loophole in state collective bargaining rules to allow for the oversight board. Unless Gov. Kate Brown schedules a special legislative session in December, that bill won't be considered until the Oregon Legislature's regular session kicks off on January 19.
January is also when the city will begin contract negotiations with PPB's rank-and-file union, the Portland Police Association (PPA). If Frederick's bill doesn't pass swiftly, the city's legal team must get PPA to agree to the new oversight board instead—a negotiation that could give the PPA an advantage. PPA has already filed a grievance against the city to challenge the new oversight system.