Note: News Editor Denis "C" Theriault wrote much of this post, but was busy being important on the radio during this morning's press conference.
- Dirk VanderHart
- Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Amanda Fritz talk police abuses, and progress
Reforming Portland's historically taze-happy and insensitive police bureau is one of the most important things going. And we now know who's going to make sure it stays in line.
Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Amanda Fritz just officially announced a group of criminologists from Chicago and South Carolina as their pick for steering the court-mandated reforms home. The Oregonian first reported the selection this morning.
The group, led by University of Illinois-Chicago professors Dennis Rosenbaum and Amy Watson, is an intriguing choice. The pair are unquestionably national experts, and have done work in Portland before. But most of the Compliance Officer and Community Liaison Team (shorthand: COCL) lives thousands of miles away.
That would be a deal breaker, except that the team has also secured a local anchor in former Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, a respected voice whom mental health advocates have singled out as a desirable component to reform.
"I understand that fear and concern that experts from somewhere else might not have the grounding in Portland that's needed for this work," Hales said, noting Rosenbaum graduated from high school here. "That’s why the critical importance of Paul De Muniz. He'll provide that link to the community, that deep understanding of Portland."
City council will vote on the appointment at next week's meeting.
Hales and Fritz this morning also announced a new position in city government, first reported in this week's Mercury: a dedicated mental health specialist to bolster the city's expertise.
Fritz, behind the scenes, has called for the mental health advocacy specialist for months. Her request will be added to next week's vote on adjusting the city's budget to account for a surplus of cash left from the last fiscal year. That job will be housed in the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, alongside the city's crime prevention coordinators, who already help bridge the gap between residents and police.
Fritz had been trying to convince Hales that the hire was worth doing. She was successful in making her pitch. Once the city council allocates money for the position, the commissioner says hiring will occur as soon as possible—potentially before the end of the year.
"The community will be involved in selecting whoever that person is."
In selecting the COCL team, Hales and Fritz had three viable candidates to go with. Local consultant John Campbell put together a sizable team of local experts, and Oregon Drug and Alcohol Policy Commission Executive Director Daniel Ward applied on his own, but made a compelling case—particularly with a backstory that includes his own lived experiences with mental illness. The various applicants made their pitches to a selection team in September.
In the end, the choice came down to De Muniz.
Fritz, in an interview with the Mercury, said she was "very impressed" with the former justice, who sat for an interview with Fritz and Commissioner Nick Fish late Tuesday, November 4. De Muniz, Fritz noted, was the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform's choice to mediate disputes over the reform deal between the city, the AMA, the feds, and the Portland Police Association.
The mention of a prominent jurisprudential figure like De Muniz had always intrigued commissioners. But his role wasn't quite clear in Rosenbaum's initial application, Fritz said. That lack of clarity was compounded in Rosenbaum's September presentation, in part because De Muniz wasn't available to participate. Having the chance to sit down with the former justice was one reason the COCL's selection was held back a week longer than initially indicated during a hearing in late October.
Having De Muniz on board satisfied one of the biggest concerns with Rosenbaum's team: that despite its dominance in statistical analysis and deep national experience working on police accountability issues, it seemed to lack a local face and champion with sufficient gravitas. That engagement piece had many members of the selection committee strongly drawn to Ward—even as others questioned Ward's lack of a team familiar with analysis and oversight.
In followup interviews, Rosenbaum's team was able answer concerns about its local face by emphasizing De Muniz. Ward, however, wasn't able to articulate who'd be on his team. He indicated, in answers to supplemental city questions, that he'd wait to do that until after getting the job. That job, however, is not small.
Beyond overseeing advisory board meetings, the COCL team is responsible for filing regular reports and auditing police use of force, as well as checking up on the bureau and city's overall progress with reforms. It's enough that a deputy city attorney joked to the city council that the COCL would probably always be in the midst of writing something. The COCL also must present findings to city officials and to a federal judge. The city was rapped by the US Department of Justice in 2012 with findings that Portland officers have engaged in a pattern or practice of using force against poeple with mental illness.
"What was persuasive to me was the experience and depth of expertise in police accountability that the Chicago team brings," Fritz told the Mercury. "The majority of the COCL's work is on police accountability—making sure what the police bureau says it's done it actually has done."
De Muniz, Fritz says, has pledged to spend one day a week helping do the COCL's outreach work, beyond chairing all oversight board meetings—and he's also promised to sit down with community members and experts including Maggie Benington-Davis and former state Senator Avel Gordly, and others.
Fritz stressed she saw "pros and cons" with all three finalists. She hopes that some of Campbell's experts might also want to work with Rosenbaum and DeMuniz. She also said, when the community was given one last time to weigh in last month, only three people signed up to speak.
"I didn't hear strong sentiments from folks that any of the three were unacceptable," she said.
That said, if there's a sudden groundswell of outcry next Wednesday—you'll have the opportunity to testify, if you'd like—things could slow down. Fritz doesn't think that'll be the case. And she's hoping city staff and attorneys quickly hammer out a final contract with Rosenbaum after Wednesday's expected vote to enter into exclusive negotiations. One big piece of that is ensuring that Rosenbaum's mental health expert, Amy Watson, is guaranteed a large role.
"We want to get going as soon as possible," Fritz said.