Seven years ago, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) found that Portland police had a “pattern and practice” of using excessive force against people with a mental illness. Now—after years of establishing de-escalation policies, misconduct review standards, and a crisis intervention team—city officials say they’re close to satisfying the terms the DOJ set forth in a settlement agreement that aimed to dramatically improve the actions of officers within the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).
“We’re very optimistic that this will occur in the next few months,” says City Attorney Tracey Reeve.
To get there, the city still needs to meet a few more federally mandated goals, including one that’s proven to be far more challenging than expected: Showing the DOJ that the police bureau has taken steps to improve community trust. Per the terms of the settlement agreement, that can’t be achieved until the PPB works with a volunteer committee of informed community members to create a substantial “community engagement plan.”
This lingering requirement has put unparalleled pressure on the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing (PCCEP), the group of community members tasked with making sure PPB’s engagement plan meets the public’s needs.
That’s a significant challenge. In March, the PPB released a study showing that 73 percent of Portlanders surveyed believe the PPB “considers race and ethnicity when enforcing the law,” and 84 percent said they had only limited experience with PPB officers participating in “authentic community engagement.” It’s on PCCEP to understand why Portlanders feel this way, gather solutions from the public about how to improve the PPB’s mediocre relationship with the public, and convince PPB to consider these ideas.
PCCEP was established only nine months ago, and the 12-person group is still in the process of getting up to speed on the complex history of Portland policing, the goals of the settlement agreement, and the legal boundaries—enshrined by the government and police unions—they must work within. PPB is expected to share its proposed community engagement plan with PCCEP within the next few months; by then, PCCEP is expected to have its own set of recommendations for the PPB to consider including.
With city officials eager to improve the reputation of a police force that discriminates against the mentally ill, skeptics fear that PCCEP will be rushed into green-lighting a weak, police-determined plan. But those who’ve dedicated their time to sit on the committee believe that PCCEP can still kick-start an overdue process of reconciliation between the PPB and the people it professes to serve.
PCCEP is the second iteration of the city’s attempt to meet the settlement agreement’s community engagement requirements. The first committee, the Community Oversight and Advisory Board (COAB), began meeting in 2015, but fizzled out after heated public meetings ended in member resignations—and arrests. Critics and COAB members accused city staff of failing to adequately train them for the labor-intensive work.
COAB’s failure didn’t only push Portland further away from meeting the DOJ’s requirements, it also intensified the public’s distrust in the city’s ability to hold PPB accountable. So it wasn’t surprising that, when Mayor Ted Wheeler created PCCEP as a replacement committee in 2018, the public held its applause.
“We’re still waiting to see how PCCEP will be any different than COAB,” says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch.
Wheeler hand-picked PCCEP’s members from nearly 100 applicants, prioritizing membership for people representing historically marginalized communities. Before holding their first meeting, PCCEP members went through an extensive training process—meeting with mental health advocates, civil rights groups, and Portland Copwatch to understand the history of police violence against the city’s minority communities. Members also spent time with PPB, joining officers on ride-alongs and hearing about the bureau’s new programs to deter discrimination and unnecessary use of force.
PCCEP’s monthly meetings, held in venues across the city, have attracted surprisingly paltry crowds in a city where police accountability is a hot topic. Police officers and city staff, however, are regularly in attendance.
Handelman, who’s attended nearly every meeting, is concerned that the city isn’t giving PCCEP members the support they need to function independently. Only in July—eight months after PCCEP’s first meeting—did Portland hire a full-time project director to oversee the group.
Handelman’s also worried the city may be pushing PCCEP to make recommendations to the police bureau before they’re fully prepared to do so.
“The city had five years to think about this agreement, but PCCEP has been asked for feedback on a dime,” says Handelman. “It’s hard to not see this as the city just trying to check off boxes and move on.”
PCCEP member Andrew Kalloch says he completely understands why many Portlanders are dubious of his group’s ability to make significant changes.
“There’s a history here... and we’re all cognizant of the shortcomings of the previous group,” says Kalloch, who works as a policy manager for Airbnb. “The city’s operating under a deficit of trust.”
Kalloch adds that the skepticism comes from all sides.
“The police think we’re these crazy radicals pushing reform,” he says, “and the public thinks we’re stooges for the mayor.”
Lakayana Drury, one of PCCEP’s co-chairs, says the group is now operating without the “training wheels” provided by the city, which assisted with scheduling meetings and educating members about the settlement agreement. Nicole Grant, a policy advisor for Wheeler who helped PCCEP get off the ground, calls this the “wait and see” phase for the committee.
“There’s still this perception that PCCEP is the PR body for the police bureau,” Grant says. “It’s just about building trust over time.”
Drury doesn’t think it’ll take long to prove to the public that PCCEP isn’t operating under the city’s thumb.
“It’s about results,” says Drury, a high school teacher and director of Word Is Bond, a nonprofit focused on building relationships between young Black men and law enforcement.
“It’s about sticking to our truth and operating in a way that’s true to us,” Drury continues. “Actions speak louder than words.”
However, Drury admits, there’s a feeling PCCEP is already behind schedule.
“There’s definitely pressure to produce some massive thing,” he says. “But we can’t get lost in how we should be any farther ahead than we are. We need to take our time to put forward something we’re confident in... something that really reflects input from the community.”
To better understand the community they’re representing, members of PCCEP have held listening sessions with Portlanders from different demographics—like high schoolers, mental health advocates, homeless Portlanders, and leaders of historically Black churches. It’s particularly important, members believe, that PCCEP meets with groups that have been disproportionately targeted by Portland law enforcement.
To prepare for potential vacancies on the committee, the city’s prepped a number of people to serve as alternates. One of them is Thabiti Lewis, an English professor at Washington State University in Vancouver, who’s been observing PCCEP meetings for a few months. He’s not happy with what he’s seen.
“I believe the police are going to put their plan on the table and say [to PCCEP], ‘We’ll hear what you have to say and take it under consideration,’” Lewis says. “But they don’t have to do anything. That’s not collaboration. That’s the same division we’re trying to move beyond.”
Lewis believes the city is only doing the minimum needed to meet the terms of the DOJ agreement.
“I don’t blame them,” he says. “If I was mayor, I would want the DOJ off my back.”
But the work will be a waste, Lewis says, if PCCEP doesn’t have time to gather community input.
“[PCCEP] is fighting against a system that wants to function a certain way,” he says. “There’s definitely a fear of change coming from the police.”
Data from the PPB itself backs up Lewis’ suspicions. In March, the PPB’s study noted that 46 percent of surveyed officers believe “change is not possible at PPB.”
PCCEP’s new project director, Theodore Latta, is confident the group will be able to change PPB’s mind. But he doesn’t think it’ll be solved by the fall, when the city hopes to be finally deemed in compliance with the settlement agreement by the DOJ.
“We need to take our time to hear from the community,” says Latta. He says that PCCEP was created to outlive the goals of the DOJ agreement, and he’s excited to wrap up the settlement work so PCCEP can focus on more long-term solutions to police distrust.
“This isn’t some temporary thing,” says Latta. “This is the beginning of a systemic change in the way we view law enforcement in this community.”
While Latta is employed by the city, he works in a Northeast Portland office building—intentionally distanced from City Hall staffers who could influence PCCEP’s work. He’s eager to connect PCCEP with groups that have traditionally been excluded from city decisions, like local Native American councils and the disability community.
“I’m here to connect the dots,” he says.
PCCEP is already thinking beyond the goals of the settlement agreement. At the group’s July meeting, a PCCEP subcommittee proposed a new policy that would require Wheeler and Police Chief Danielle Outlaw to issue apologies to the families of those killed by a PPB officer. The group has also recommended PPB create a Hispanic Advisory Council and increase the size and influence of PPB’s internal Community Engagement Office, which currently has a staff of one.
Some PCCEP members have met with the family of Andre Gladen, a man who was fatally shot by the PPB in January while in a mental health crisis, to better understand their frustrations with the city. To create a robust community engagement plan that will continue to benefit all Portlanders in the future, PCCEP alternate member Thabiti Lewis says it’s crucial to look at the challenges and the failures of the past.
“We need to be able to process our city’s history with the police so that the actions that we take going forward work,” he says. “Otherwise, we’ll be right back here in 20 years.”