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Mathieu Lewis-Rolland

One year ago, city leaders and Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officials had cause for celebration: After six years of working to meet the law enforcement reforms mandated in a settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ), the city had received notice from the feds that it had finally met all 190 of the agreement’s requirements.

The detailed 2014 agreement came after a DOJ investigation found that PPB officers were using excessive force against people with mental illness. The agreed-upon reforms included creating a streamlined police accountability system, training officers to use less physical force, and requiring detailed reports from officers after they use force.

After receiving the DOJ’s stamp of approval in January 2020, all the city had left to do before being released from the onerous settlement was to remain “in compliance”—or, continue to operate under the new policies and practices—for one year.

And then the rest of 2020 happened.

On Wednesday, city officials learned that the combination of massive protests, COVID-19 restrictions, and budget cuts effectively pushed the city out of compliance with the DOJ’s legal agreement. In a 73-page report explaining the decision, the DOJ writes that, despite 2020’s unforeseen pressures, Portland and its police are not excused from upholding its obligations in the 2014 agreement.

The DOJ points to four areas in which the city has missed its mark: First, police repeatedly violated PPB’s use of force policy by using disproportionate force against protesters; second, more than half of PPB’s officers skipped mandatory training; third, the city’s Independent Police Review (IPR) was unable to investigate complaints against officers in the required amount of time; and fourth, PPB failed to present its 2019 annual report to the public.

It’s now on the city and its police bureau to meet these missed requirements and again prove to the DOJ that it can be back on the right track for at least a year. The federal judge tasked with overseeing the settlement process has scheduled a hearing with the city and DOJ in August to evaluate its progress.

The Wednesday report didn’t come as a big surprise to many involved in the settlement agreement, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as Portland’s police commissioner.

“It’s clear to us that the nature, tenor, and score of protests this summer stressed the bureau’s ability to be in compliance,” said Jim Middaugh, a spokesperson for Wheeler. “Our resources were strained to a degree that we couldn’t accomplish every requirement, but that doesn’t mean we won’t accomplish them. We are committed to creating a police department that can withstand critics like the DOJ.”

Brian Hunzeker, who leads the Portland Police Association (PPB’s union for rank-and-file officers) also appeared to expect the DOJ’s findings, writing in a social media post that the city must make a larger financial investment in PPB to reach full compliance. The police union is one of the defendants—along with the city, Multnomah County, and PPB— in the settlement agreement.

“None of this is a surprise to those who’ve been observing the police over the past year,” said Juan Chavez, an attorney representing the Mental Health Alliance (MHA). MHA is one of two local advocacy groups that had been granted permission to give feedback on the settlement to the judge overseeing the process. The other organization is the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform.

Chavez said he was encouraged to see the DOJ critique the PPB’s inability to hold its officers accountable, specifically for using excessive force during protests. The DOJ’s report found that PPB supervisors rarely questioned or investigated their officers’ decision to use violence against members of the public.

“Officer accountability is something that folks have been talking about for so long in this city… and we’ve seen little change,” said Chavez, noting that the newly proposed police oversight board approved by Portland voters in November will hopefully change that.

Lakayana Drury of the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing (PCCEP)—a volunteer-led police oversight group mandated by the settlement agreement—said he was relieved to see DOJ’s assessment.

“Just looking at the use of force used on a nightly basis over the summer, I can’t see how anyone could say [the PPB] was in substantial compliance,” Drury said. “But I did wonder if there was some way [the DOJ] would be giving the police leniency due to COVID-19. I am glad to see that they are taking a critical look at things.”

But Drury raised another point echoed by longtime police accountability advocates: While the DOJ report validates the community’s belief that the PPB’s heavy-handed response to 2020’s protests was negligent, it does not change the narrow focus of the original legal agreement.

The 2014 settlement agreement was created specifically to address excessive force against people with a mental illness. In 2021 Portland, however, the conversation around police violence goes beyond injuries against a single class of people. New city policy and activism work now addresses how policing disproportionately impacts the most marginalized communities, including people of color, immigrants, houseless people, LGBTQ individuals, and people with mental illnesses.

“It’s time we ask ourselves, is the settlement agreement—which doesn’t mention race once—still an effective system today?” Drury said. “Does it serve us?”

Drury said the agreement's narrow focus can often create division between activist groups that share the same goals of police accountability.

Even if the PPB again finds itself in compliance with the settlement agreement, it may not be enough to effectively address the police accountability demands that have only gained momentum since last summer’s protests.

“Can a settlement agreement in and of itself change an agency’s practices? No it can’t,” said Drury. “At some point the PPB has to find it within itself to begin serving everyone in this city.”

Drury said he wants to see Portland City Council, Wheeler, and PPB leadership create a clear path forward towards police reform that reaches beyond the box-checking requirements of the settlement agreement.

“No one really knows where we’re going right now, in terms of policing,” he said. “All we, as a community, have seen from our leaders and the PPB are reactions. No one is setting the tone or creating a path forward. I can’t honestly say if the DOJ settlement is still helping us get there.”

His perspective is shared by Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. Hardesty was one of the original activists who convinced the DOJ to investigate PPB in 2010, raising alarms about the disproportionate rate of Black Portlanders being shot by police. She’s long expressed her disappointment that the resulting settlement agreement lacked any commitment to racial justice or addressing racism in the PPB.

Hardesty doesn’t believe the current agreement serves the city.

“While the DOJ settlement agreement has brought some positive change to policing in Portland, it has now become an impediment to progress,” Hardesty wrote in a statement to the Mercury. “The city has poured millions of dollars into a process that isn’t changing our outcomes. I hope the courts will see that we need to get out of this agreement to transform community safety in Portland going forward.”

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Hardesty led the successful campaign to create a police oversight board, one that could grant a citizen board the ability to discipline and even fire officers. Her office has also laid the groundwork for the Portland Street Response, an emergency response program that doesn't involve armed police officers.

Middaugh said Wheeler sees the city’s work on the settlement agreement as only a piece of much needed law enforcement reforms. But Portland City Council will need to come to a consensus on what PPB’s future holds before moving forward, Middaugh added. Those conversations will likely take place during upcoming city budget talks and in the city’s current contract negotiations with the PPA.

“These are big decisions,” said Middaugh. “It’s going to take some time.”