The last time Portland officials created a committee to improve police interactions with the public, it blew up it their face.
It wasn't entirely the city's fault. Portland was ordered to assemble a Community Oversight Advisory Board, or COAB, by a federal judge as part of the city's 2014 settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ). That agreement, meant to improve the way Portland police use force against mentally ill people, calls for a number of reforms within the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), along with the creation of COAB to oversee those reforms and suggest ways the PPB could improve community-police relations.
But COAB seemed doomed from the start. Meetings would regularly devolve into tense arguments between police-reform activists and officers, both of which were represented on the board. Members, city officials, and DOJ lawyers gradually stopped attending meetings. In 2016, then-mayor Charlie Hales killed the program, largely ignoring COAB's 50 recommendations. The community wasn't happy. The feds weren't happy.
Two years later, Mayor Ted Wheeler unveiled the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing (or PCCEP, pronounced pee-sep), a second attempt at the court-mandated board.
Like COAB, PCCEP is tasked with making recommendations on how PPB can improve police interactions. Police accountability advocates are understandably cautious to embrace the new coalition, which met for the first time in November. As the city takes a second swing at citizen-led oversight, the question remains: Will this group be any different from the divisive COAB?
I turned to Nicole Grant, Wheeler's senior policy advisor and PCCEP mastermind, for answers. Grant joined the Hales administration just in time to watch COAB fizzle out, giving her the necessary perspective to make PCCEP stick. (She hopes.)
"I think the biggest difference is the city's buy-in," Grant says. City commissioners steered clear of COAB's work, not wanting to get tangled up in its disorder. This time around, commissioners were required to advise Wheeler on his selection of PCCEP members and seem hopeful for its success.
“I do not think the city did its job in protecting [COAB members] and investing in them and their work,” Grant says. “Because of that, PCCEP is operating at a deficit of trust. That's something we have to live with.”
One of the community's biggest gripes about COAB was that its meetings were led by a Chicago-based contractor hired by the city. "Why would an out-of-state [group] supervise a body that's supposed to be community-driven?" says Grant. "It just didn't make sense."
With PCCEP, meetings will be led by local facilitator Brad Taylor, who has a history of training city bureaus on conflict resolution.
And while COAB was expected to deliver suggestions to the city and DOJ within a year, PCCEP has no cutoff date. There's no reason it couldn't become a permanent committee, Grant says.
“For PCCEP, the settlement agreement is the floor. It’s where we begin,” she says. “Whereas with the COAB, it was the ceiling.”
Unlike COAB, there are no members of law enforcement that sit on PCCEP. That's intentional: Grant sees the mandated semi-annual meetings between PCCEP and PPB as a more productive and less combative way to share community feedback with officers.
Yet there's no certainty of the committee's outcome. A PCCEP member recently asked Grant if PPB and the city will actually listen to the group's suggestions.
"I admitted to her, it's hard. It's not as simple as saying 'Here's a recommendation,' and [PPB] responds with 'Okay!'" Grant says. "It's a constant struggle and it takes time. It's absolutely a long game."