Portland’s citizen-led police oversight board has some concerns.
In October, the city’s Citizen Review Committee (CRC)—an 11-member board of volunteers tasked with reviewing police conduct—wrapped up their six-year investigation into when and how Portland police officers use violence against members of the public.
The CRC condensed their findings into an eight-page report that not only raised concerns about inconsistent use-of-force training across the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) but suggested policy tweaks to fix the problem.
For committee members, the report was a significant accomplishment: years of plodding meetings with wary officers, long nights navigating through legalese, and tedious policy dissections had all paid off.
One of the CRC’s many duties is to make policy recommendations to both city council and the chief of police in order “to prevent and rectify patterns of problems.” The group had already shared their policy recommendations with former PPB chief Mike Marshman, whose feedback was included in the October report, and were patiently waiting to get the finished product before city commissioners.
“We were excited to go to city council to say, ‘Look what we’ve achieved! We did something! It’s worth it for us to be here!’” says CRC Chair Kristin Malone.
But the committee’s council liaison, City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, didn’t share that enthusiasm. In a short email to CRC members, Hull Caballero wrote that she wouldn’t be putting their report on the city council’s agenda.
Malone and her fellow committee members were stunned.
“It had never occurred to us she would stand in the way of a CRC report,” says Malone.
Hull Caballero’s decision speaks to a growing divide between the CRC, the city’s police advisory board, and Hull Caballero, its appointed advocate in city hall.
“This level of disconnect is unusual. But what’s worse: It’s saying the community’s voice isn’t important. That their input on policing isn’t valued."
Hull Caballero, the only elected official in city hall who doesn’t sit on city council, isn’t the first auditor to distance herself from the CRC, a group whose mere existence offends Portland’s domineering police union, the Portland Police Association (PPA). It’s uncommon for a city auditor, who usually deals in research and analysis, to be so connected to police accountability work—but it’s the way Portland’s chosen to organize its police oversight.
The frayed relationship between the auditor and the CRC not only threatens to keep critical policy improvements off city council’s radar, but also discourages those committed to improving Portland’s imperfect police bureau.
“This level of disconnect is unusual,” said Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch. “But what’s worse: It’s saying the community’s voice isn’t important. That their input on policing isn’t valued.”
For Malone, the tension between the CRC and auditor’s office began two years ago, when Hull Caballero announced she’d no longer be meeting with CRC members unless it was during a public meeting. Hull Caballero has only attended one of the CRC’s monthly meetings since then, aside from a brief visit to hand out certificates of appreciation. The group has repeatedly asked for her presence to give feedback on policy recommendations, but she’s declined.
Lately, CRC members have only been able to learn what Hull Caballero thinks of their work by speaking with members of the Independent Police Review, the city office that sets the CRC’s agendas, or from members of city council, who, unlike the auditor, regularly meet with the group.
“I can’t help but ask myself, ‘Do we have the auditor’s support? Does she even want this group to exist?’” says Malone. “If we’re doing something wrong, I just want to know.”
“I wish people would understand how hostile this feels for volunteers.”
At November’s CRC meeting, held one floor below Hull Caballero’s office in City Hall, Malone announced she was considering stepping down as chair and leaving the CRC.
“I wish people would understand how hostile this feels for volunteers,” she tells the Mercury.
CRC members wear many hats. When the group isn’t researching PPB policies, it acts as a board of appeals for members of the public who report police misconduct, which can encompass everything from claims of retaliatory arrests to officer rudeness. The CRC is also responsible for reaching out to community groups to gather feedback on PPB’s work. The volunteer gig takes up an average of eight hours a week.
While the policy advisory piece of their work is generally the most drawn-out and least noticed, it’s often the most impactful. After presenting their use-of-force recommendations to Chief Marshman in 2017, the former PPB head amended the bureau’s Use of Force Directive to include officer protocol around de-escalation tactics.
In an email to the Mercury, Hull Caballero wrote that because of these changes, she was “unclear what value would be added” by CRC presenting the Use of Force report to the council. In her eyes, it seems, the policy problems have already been solved.
But policy changes don’t always stick. As Handelman pointed out at a recent CRC meeting, de-escalation policies haven’t necessarily been reflected in recent fatal police shootings. That’s why getting the CRC’s report in front of city commissioners—especially Mayor Ted Wheeler, who currently serves as the police commissioner—was important.
“I think the city council should hear a deadly force report, especially in this climate,” Handelman said.
City council seems to agree.
At a November council meeting, commissioners unanimously voted to appoint a new member to the CRC. Before casting her vote, Commissioner Amanda Fritz noted her concerns over not regularly hearing the committee’s recommendations.
“We continue to have a problem with public trust in our police, and the CRC has to be a central part of that,” Fritz said. “We have to get the reports back to the council in a timely manner.”
“Auditors are a special type of person. They aren’t like regular politicians. Maybe police oversight is not a good fit?”
Since entering the office in 2015, Hull Caballero has pushed to better define her role in city hall. In 2017, she championed a city charter amendment—approved by city council and voters—to safeguard her independence from Portland City Council, the body in charge of the bureaus she audits. Earlier this year, Hull Caballero refused to house the city’s campaign finance program in her office, citing her lack of faith in the program’s efficacy.
She now appears to be backing away from her involvement with the CRC. For longtime city watchdogs, it’s a familiar pattern.
“The CRC has become an area of discomfort for the past three auditors,” said Debbie Aiona of Portland’s League of Women’s Voters (LWV). Aiona said Hull Caballero stopped taking meetings with the LWV after the group disagreed with a position she took.
“Auditors are a special type of person,” Aiona says. “They aren’t like regular politicians. Maybe police oversight is not a good fit?”
Unlike her fellow elected officials, Hull Caballero strategically distances herself from politics and policy-making—especially the kind that may ruffle feathers, like those involving police reform. Members of the PPA have opposed the CRC since the establishment of the committee in 2001, accusing its members of anti-police bias. For Hull Caballero, supporting a CRC directive would all but guarantee a heated meeting with PPA’s top brass—exactly the kind of political tension an auditor works hard to steer clear of.
But Portlanders recently elected a new city commissioner who’s eager to shake up the police bureau’s status quo. Incoming commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty campaigned on a platform of police reform, which included plans to audit the entire police bureau. Malone is hopeful that Hardesty will be able to rework Portland’s current police oversight system, but for now, all she’s certain of is that things have to change.
To underscore that certainty, Malone recalled a 2014 conversation she had with police reform advocate Teressa Raiford, shortly after Malone joined the CRC.
“She told me the CRC is a dead end... that it’s unable to make any real change,” Malone says. “At the time, I didn’t believe it entirely. But now, I’m thinking maybe she’s right.”