After nearly a year delay, city attorneys resumed contract negotiations Wednesday with the Portland Police Association (PPA), the union representing Portland's rank-and-file officers.
But the day's virtual meeting did not simply pick up where it left off in March 2020, when COVID-19 derailed the possibility of in-person negotiations. The conversation instead reflected the time spent away from the bargaining table—specifically, eight months of protest, political organizing, and policymaking centered on overhauling status quo policing.
"This is a moment of change," said Steven Schuback, the outside labor attorney hired to lead the city's negotiations, at the start of Wednesday's session.
Since the negotiations were put on pause by the pandemic—a decision that eventually forced the city to extend the expiring contract past its June 30 end date—a national uprising against racist policing and police brutality drew tens of thousands of Portlanders to the streets to call for overdue changes. Officers with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) responded to these demonstrations with heavy-handed and largely indiscriminate force, using tear gas and munitions to disperse groups of largely peaceful protesters.
These events inspired Portland City Council to reduce the current police bureau budget by $15 million, while also forcing the city into countless lawsuits to defend actions by its officers against demonstrators and civil rights groups. In November, a council-backed proposal to strengthen the city's police oversight and discipline powers easily passed voter scrutiny, with 82 percent approval.
Empowered by the public's renewed call for action, the city's bargaining team wasted no time with expected pleasantries before presenting PPA leaders with substantive changes to the current union contract. The move had PPA's top lawyer and new president playing defense—an unfamiliar position for the powerful union.
The main proposals the city introduced Wednesday included:
Limiting secondary employment for PPB officers. Currently, private entities (like Apple) can hire Portland police to work, in uniform, as security guards at events or business. It's long been considered a win-win: Those companies get the muscle of a real-deal cop at their command, while the city gets to backfill the PPB budget with officers' outside wages. It appears the city is done with this pay-to-play model, however. On Wednesday, Schuback proposed limiting PPB officers' secondary security work to "community events, civic events and special activities within the city." The city also wants to give PPB leadership the authority to veto an officer's security assignment at one of those events if that officer is needed for higher-priority police work at the time.
Education requirements for promotions. Schuback proposed a policy that would require officers to first complete 12 hours of continuing education before applying for a promotion to sergeant. The courses would have to be completed outside of work hours, and focus on implicit bias, racism, gender bias, and micro-aggressions.
Allowing performance evaluations to include discipline. In previous contract negations, the city agreed to keep conversations about discipline out of an officer's routine performance evaluation with their superior. For instance: If, while reviewing an officer's file during a performance evaluation, a sergeant discovered that several colleagues had filed complaints against that officer for consistently showing up to work late, that sergeant could not penalize the officer. The city's hoping to bargain that right back into the contract this time around.
Reconsidering the "embarrassment clause." Schuback has proposed cutting language out of the contract that states, "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, dubbed the "embarrassment clause," made headlines in 2019, 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 friendly text messages with far-right activists. On Wednesday, Schuback said the clause has kept the public from trusting that city officials are taking police misconduct allegations seriously, since it prohibits those officials from making any comment on the issue.
"As a public entity representing the community, city officials need to make a response in recognition that an investigation [into police misconduct] will lead to answers," said Schuback.
Allowing the city to decide who disciplines officers. At the moment, the only people allowed to dole out discipline to officers are their superiors within PPB, whether that's the police chief or a commanding officer. However, the city's voter-approved proposal to strengthen the city's police oversight department would grant city employees and oversight board members the ability to mandate police discipline—including termination—based on an independent investigation conducted outside of the police bureau. (Under the city's current framework, police misconduct cases that involve death, discrimination, and other high-level accusations are solely investigated by other police officers in a largely opaque process.)
The city is still in its early stages of forming a committee to lay out the framework for this new police oversight department and board, which is expected to replace the current Independent Police Review (IPR) office in 2022.
This final proposal will likely be the hardest fought issue at the bargaining table this year, as PPA has come out in strong opposition to the new police oversight system. Two days after the November election, PPA filed a union grievance with the city, arguing that state law bars the city from making any changes to discipline practices without first negotiating the changes with its union.
The city did not mention this challenge Wednesday, nor did they appear interested in debating its validity. The city is instead betting on the state legislature to solve this problem with a bill specifically tailored to this issue. Last week, Senator Lew Frederick introduced a bill that would tweak state law to allow voter-approved community oversight boards to oversee disciplinary matters without requiring union buy-in.
The city's initial proposals address many issues raised by a group of police accountability advocates, led by Unite Oregon, a racial justice and civil rights organization, and Portland Copwatch, a longtime police watchdog group.
"We're pleased by how many of our concerns the city touched on today," said Dan Handelman, founder of Portland Copwatch, after the Wednesday session.
PPA's general counsel Anil Karia, meanwhile, raised concerns about nearly every proposal during the initial meeting, noting that his team would respond with their own proposals and counter-offers in future sessions. Karia raised particular offense to the city's interest in undoing the embarrassment clause, suggesting it was a way to make the names of officers who are accused of misconduct public (Schuback did not indicate the city was requesting this).
"The PPA is not interested and never interested in the public shaming of its members," said Karia.
Karia then explained that, the previous evening, a group of people showed up at his Northeast Portland house to engage in vandalism in what Karia believed was a "reprehensible" attempt to intimidate the PPA lawyer before the next day's negotiations. He suggested that the city's proposal could lead to officers being harassed at their homes.
"A lot of what we’re doing at the bargaining table has impacts on our communities," said Karia.
PPA did not introduce any of its own contract proposals at the Wednesday meeting, but Karia hinted at the union's concerns about officer recruitment and retainment. Historically, PPA has asked for increased officer benefits and pay in exchange for the city's officer accountability demands.
When both parties last met in early 2020, now-retired PPA president Daryl Turner sat at the bargaining table. Before wrapping the day's session, Karia gave newly elected PPA president Brian Hunzeker a chance to address the city's bargaining team.
Hunzeker used the opportunity to condemn the city's new police oversight system, arguing that the voters weren't accurately informed on the issue before making a decision.
"It is not a reasonable way to address serious subject matter that has so many implications for our officers and the community we’re trying to protect," he said.
Hunzeker did echo some of the city's talking points around community involvement, thanking the members of the public who were watching the remote meeting online.
"The Portland Police Bureau's success depends on community engagement," he said. "Meaningful reform can only come when all stakeholders are at the table."
And yet, per PPA's request, the next bargaining session will be held behind closed doors. The city and the PPA have agreed to alternately hosting the contract negotiation meetings, with PPA refusing to make their meetings available to the public. The public, including PPB officers, will not be privy to any substantive conversations that take place during the PPA's private sessions.
It's expected that all of PPA's counter-proposals will be introduced in these closed-door sessions, not to mention both parties' more heated debates.
The next city-hosted session will be held on February 10.