The last time city commissioners met Portland’s police union at the bargaining table, it made national headlines. “Clashes erupt in Portland, Ore., over new police rules,” read the Los Angeles Times on October 12, 2016—the day City Council approved its latest contract with the Portland Police Association (PPA), Portland’s union for rank-and-file cops. And, from the Associated Press: “Police and protesters clash at Portland city hall over law enforcement contract.”
During the council vote, protesters’ vocal opposition to the agreed-on contract inspired officers to eject dozens of Portlanders from city hall, shoving and pepper-spraying activists in the process. While then-Mayor Charlie Hales lauded the deal for finally scrapping the Portland Police Bureau’s (PPB) 48-hour rule—the one that gave cops involved in a shooting two days until they had to speak with internal investigators—community relations were raw thanks to officers’ jarring response to their critics and the smug satisfaction of the PPA.
Portland City Council is poised to negotiate with the PPA again this winter, before the police union’s contract expires in June 2020. With the scars from 2016’s negotiations barely healed, city councilors will be well prepared.
For starters, they’re calling in help from two notable Black Lives Matter activists: DeRay Mckesson and Samuel Sinyangwe.
Mckesson and Sinyangwe rose to prominence during the 2015 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the officer shooting of Michael Brown. The pair have spent the past few years collecting data on cities’ police union contracts in order to better understand how contract language shields officers who injure or kill members of the public. In 2018, Mckesson and Sinyangwe worked closely with activists to help Austin City Council pass a police union contract that expanded public oversight for cases of police misconduct.
Wheeler has invited Mckesson and Sinyangwe to give a presentation on their research at an October 1 council work session. It’s a sign that commissionesr might be more open to reforms than last time around.
City Council’s also considering bringing in a very different group of experts for the negotiations: private legal representation.
Earlier this month, Willamette Week reported on a leaked memo revealing that Bullard Law Firm—a local agency known for its work busting unions—has offered to represent the city in negotiations. In the past, Portland’s internal legal department handled contract negotiations with unionized staff. While it’s not unusual for cities to hire outside law firms to negotiate police union deals, they usually do so when city attorneys can no longer afford to be stuck in unexpectedly lengthy bargaining cases. That Portland is already considering an outside legal team shows a new level of caution from city commissioners—three of whom, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, have never participated in PPA negotiations.
Still, members of the public remain hesitant to believe Council will accurately represent their policing concerns. A coalition of social justice nonprofits—including Portland NAACP, Portland Copwatch, and Unite Oregon—have released their recommendations to City Council on how the contract can advance police accountability.
If city commissioners learned anything from 2016, they’ll listen.