In what's undoubtedly a first for Portland, prominent police accountability activists met with city commissioners and Portland Police Bureau (PPB) leadership Tuesday to share "best practices" in negotiating police union contracts.
"We think these are common sense solutions," said DeRay Mckesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and former public school administrator, who presented alongside Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist who met Mckesson through activist work surrounding the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Mckesson and Sinyangwe now run a project called Campaign Zero which—among other things—uses data and research to analyze how union contracts protect officers who use force across the country.
Tuesday's public work session comes just weeks before Portland kicks off its own contract negotiations with the Portland Police Association (PPA), PPB's union for rank-and-file officers. The current contract was approved in November 2016 and is set to expire in June 2020. This will be the first time Mayor Ted Wheeler, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty will participate in PPA negotiations.
"I think this is a wonderful opportunity for City Council to collectively ensure that we are in fact implementing best practices throughout the city," said Hardesty, who helped organize the presentation. "As our city and community continue to change and evolve, I want to make sure we are utilizing data and research to make decisions that reflect 21st century policing principles."
While Wheeler barred the conversation from directly discussing the PPA negotiations, Mckesson and Sinyangwe outlined areas of Portland's current PPA contract they believe undermines the city's ability to prevent police misconduct.
One of those areas was PPB's inability to track officers who are frequently accused of misconduct.
Sinyangwe explained how data can act as an "early warning system" for police leadership on which officers are more likely to use unnecessary force against a member of the public.
"We can design models to predict which officers might be involved in the next shooting," he said. "But they rely on being able to use complaints... and data on past use-of-force instances."
Under PPA's current contract, only the final results of a misconduct investigation that led to an officer being disciplined can be added to that officer's personnel file. PPB cannot include misconduct allegations that aren't upheld by a PPB investigation—even though the complaint could still shed some light on how an officer interacts with the public.
If that information was made available, Mckesson said, it could be used to reassign officers that, for example, receive disproportionate complaints in one part of a city. Although Portland does collect and publicize data on police use-of-force, the PPA contract keeps the city from using that data to inform personnel decisions.
Per the contract:
"The City's Employee Information System and the information developed therein shall not form the basis for disciplinary action but may be used for non-disciplinary notice purposes, such as development of work performance plans and letters of expectation. The reports from EIS may not be used by the City for disciplinary, transfer or promotion decisions."
"It doesn’t make sense to collect all this data... and not be able to use it," Mckesson said.
Sinyangwe cited data compiled by Chicago's Invisible Institute, which found that cops who work closely with other officers whose past misconduct hasn't been adequately addressed are more likely to mirror that behavior.
"Misconduct starts in a relatively concentrated area," Sinyangwe said, "but because those officers aren’t held accountable, that misconduct spreads... almost like a disease over time."
Sinyangwe also raised concerns about the contract's so-called "embarrassment clause," which states that, "if the city has reason to reprimand or discipline an officer, it shall be done in a manner that is least likely to embarrass the officer before other officers or the public."
This rule made headlines in February, when Portland Police Commanding Officers Association—the union representing PPB lieutenants and commanders that shares contract language with PPA—filed a harassment complaint against several city commissioners for their public comments about PPB Lt. Jeff Niiya's text messages with far-right activists.
The union argued the city leaders' comments weren't presented in a way "least likely to embarrass" Niiya.
"The embarrassment clause is pretty unique to Portland," Sinyangwe said. "We know it’s been used in the city to influence the grievance process. It needs to be better investigated."
Multiple times during the presentation, the men referenced a sobering statistic multiple times: That 58 percent of the Portlanders who PPB officers use force against are homeless.
"That's much larger than what we see in other jurisdictions," said Sinyangwe, "and something that definitely requires its own set of interventions."
Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, Deputy Chief Jami Resch, and other top PPB brass attended the morning's work session. Outlaw only raised a few clarifying questions during the presentation, but nothing to signal her thoughts on the pair's suggestions.
"I support a fair and objective process for bargaining for all of our members, but I also believe it's important to hear from varying perspectives to ensure any blind spots are addressed," Outlaw said at the meeting's onset.
The meeting, which was open to the public, was attended by many local police accountability activists—including those who held a press conference with a list of PPA contract reforms in September.
City commissioners expressed cautious interest in the presentation's findings.
"I have a ton of questions which flow from this presentation," said Commissioner Nick Fish.
Fish asked Wheeler if the city attorney's office could help answer city commissioners' questions—especially how they relate to the upcoming PPA negotiations—in the next few weeks. Commissioner Amanda Fritz asked the pair to send the city any other examples of PPB policy language that could be improved. Commissioner Eudaly was absent from the morning's meeting.
PPA leadership weren't present at the work session. According to Wheeler's office, PPA President Daryl Turner met with Wheeler last week to discuss the upcoming contract negotiations.
On Tuesday afternoon, Turner used PPA's Facebook page to share these thoughts on the presentation:
"Any public employee union contract is grounded in two basic concepts. First, public employees have constitutional rights to include basic due process rights. Second, public employees have the right to collectively bargain working conditions that allow them to best serve their communities.
Earlier today in the City Council work session, we heard from individuals from Campaign Zero who presented, under the guise of 'national best practices,' several ideas that would take away these basic employment rights that all public employees should have and enjoy.
It is clear that Campaign Zero’s recommendations would strip police officers of the very same due process and constitutional rights that all public employees possess. This is nothing more than an attack on workers."
Negotiations between the PPA and City of Portland are expected to begin within the next few weeks.