THE CITIZEN BOARD helping reform Portland’s police force got out of a two-month timeout last week to find it had been stood up.
Membership of the COAB (Community Oversight Advisory Board) had already dwindled to roughly half its intended 15-person strength—and just five appeared in person at last Thursday’s meeting. Not a one of the police “advisers” assigned to the group showed up. Nor did the City Attorney’s Office or US Department of Justice (DOJ), which have often made sure to be on hand to offer advice or clarity on the fraught business of police reform.
The Chicago academics being paid to scrutinize Portland’s police reform effort—and who are tasked with chairing the COAB—were also absent, though they sent a representative to run the meeting.
Other than a handful of police accountability diehards in the audience, the COAB was on its own.
“There are no police advisers here,” COAB member and attorney Tom Steenson said to the room at one point. “The city attorneys don’t show up. The DOJ doesn’t show up. I think we’ve been abandoned.”
Quagmire is nothing new for the COAB, but last week’s all-out desertion felt like a final admission that this part of Portland’s bold experiment was being left for dead.
The COAB was supposed to bring a vital citizen-driven perspective to the city’s federally mandated police reforms. Instead, roughly three months before all of its members’ terms are set to expire—and with no indication from City Hall they’ll be extended—the COAB couldn’t even get a police officer to attend.
Officials gave the Mercury a variety of reasons for their absence. City Attorney Tracy Reeve noted her office has no mandate to sit in on the meetings. A US Department of Justice spokesperson said its absence “was purely a scheduling issue” (also, the office had just been handed a stunning defeat in its attempt to prosecute Ammon Bundy and his fellow occupiers that afternoon). The Portland Police Bureau said its officers didn’t think enough COAB members would show up to hold a proper meeting.
“Basically we were deserted,” is how COAB member Philip Wolfe sees it. “They are avoiding us.”
It’s not that there aren’t good reasons for officials to be skeptical of the experiment they helped create.
From its inception, personality conflicts, basic disagreements, rowdy spectators, and other issues have distracted from the COAB’s stated purpose, which is “to leverage ideas, talent, experience, and expertise from the community” as Portland works to correct police practices that saw force applied too often against people in mental health crisis.
Kathleen Saadat, the respected Portland equity advocate who chaired the COAB for a year before resigning this summer, described the effort as “trying to win the Derby while riding a three-legged horse in a Missouri thunderstorm without reins or saddle.”
But as it stands now, the limping nature of the COAB is also one of the city’s chief challenges to meeting the terms of a settlement it signed with the feds in 2014. In a report to US District Judge Michael Simon on October 18, the DOJ found the city is out of compliance with its commitments to the group. If it doesn’t correct matters, it risks being found in violation of the settlement.
One glaring factor: City officials have allowed the COAB to run dry.
As COAB members have resigned one by one amid turmoil, Portland City Council hasn’t appointed enough new members to keep the group at full strength. It’s currently missing seven members. As a recent report from the DOJ noted: “Despite our request in our 2015 report, the City has yet to provide DOJ with a plan to fill the vacancies of the at-large committee members.”
Until last week, the vacancies had effectively neutered the COAB. The group’s bylaws dictate a majority of members need to be on hand in order for members to decide on anything, meaning all eight remaining members needed to show. Often that wasn’t happening.
But at Thursday’s meeting, the group—with three members participating remotely—voted to change the rules so that only a majority of the eight remaining members are needed in order to make recommendations on police reform. Then the COAB took a relatively weighty step, voting to recommend a new model members had come up with for Portland to hold its officers accountable. (The vast majority of the group’s 48 recommendations to city and federal officials have received no response, COAB members say.)
Even with that progress, the lack of officials’ interest suggests the board isn’t going to be around for much longer—at least in its present form.
In August, Mayor Charlie Hales and the DOJ announced the group would be placed on a 60-day recess “to evaluate how to create a better process that fulfills the intention of community involvement in police accountability.”
During the 60-day window, the city says it interviewed “scores of people” and drafted an outline for how the group should move forward. The DOJ says it’s the city’s responsibility to “provide a robust proposal that is developed with stakeholder input...”
But no fixes have been made public. The mayor’s office says it’s still in conversations with groups like the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, and the Portland Police Association, the city’s largest police union.
Everyone agrees some form of change is needed. The COAB has lobbied to push those Chicago academics from its work (and the academics agree). But as of now, the city isn’t even saying whether COAB members’ terms will be allowed to simply end on January 31, leaving a further gap in Portland’s police reform effort.
Asked for comment, Hales and Commissioner Amanda Fritz sent short written statements, speaking of their commitment to righting the ship, but without suggesting how that can happen.
COAB members, fresh from two months in limbo, are waiting on an answer.
“COAB is transitory,” Steenson told the group last week. “We are not quite dead, but eventually we’re going to expire.”