The US Department of Justice appears ready to ease up on its oversight of Portland police activity. 

The Portland City Council is slated to consider and vote on amendments this Wednesday to a 2014 settlement agreement between the city and the Department of Justice (DOJ) over Portland Police Bureau (PPB)’s alleged pattern of using excessive force on people with mental illness.

Updating the agreement will involve the selection of an independent monitor to oversee the city’s compliance with the settlement, rather than the DOJ being directly responsible. An independent monitor will be chosen from a public selection process, including a town hall for finalists. Prior to that, both the Portland Police Association and the Portland Committee on Community Engaged Policing will be invited to help select finalists, who will then participate in a public town hall. 

Amending the agreement could also substantially reduce the city’s requirements and move the city into a phase of self-monitoring.

According to legal staff for the city, after two years of continuous compliance with the terms of the settlement,  DOJ will scrap 40 paragraphs from the agreement.

A 2021 memo from US Attorney General Merrick Garland regarding the use of monitors in civil settlement agreements notes consent decrees often provide a stable, long-term plan for reforming agencies or departments, and for police, they can help “to rebuild trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.”

But Garland also noted the long-term goal is for an agency to be able to comply on its own and self-correct when misconduct occurs.

“A consent decree cannot last forever, and success should be measured not only by the substantive reforms that have been made but also by the jurisdiction’s ability to engage in reform and monitor itself long after the decree has ended,” Garland noted.

Amendments and reductions to the federal agreement are subject to a court's approval during a November 30 hearing.

How it started

The DOJ’s complaint came in 2012 and was adopted by a court in 2014, following a series of incidents in which police used force on or killed people with mental illness. DOJ attorneys alleged the police bureau's pattern of incidents led to constitutional violations. The city denied those allegations.

The settlement set parameters around use of force, calling for more training and updated policies related to crisis intervention, officer accountability, community-based mental health services, and community engagement.

“The full and sustained implementation of this Agreement is intended to protect the constitutional rights of all members of the community, continuously improve the safety and security of the people of Portland, keep PPB employees safe, and increase public confidence in PPB, all in a cost- effective, timely, and collaborative manner,” the settlement agreement states.

The agreement called for “more effective systems of oversight” of PPB, and resulted in Portland forming the Committee on Community Engaged Policing. 

Federal prosecutors also noted the Portland Police Bureau was far behind most other metropolitan law enforcement agencies that had already begun using body cameras to record interactions and incidents. The settlement called for PPB to do the same. 

How it's going

After years of negotiations and reluctance from the Portland Police Association–the union representing most of PPB's officers–the city and PPB reached an agreement and adopted a pilot program for body cameras that ran from August to October earlier this year. The city says police will now start prepping to fully implement body cameras within the next 10 months.

While the city says it’s been “diligently working to comply with its requirements for more than a decade,” last year, the DOJ reported the city was out of compliance with several areas of the agreement. Some of the problems stemmed from PPB’s response to the racial justice protests of 2020.

In announcing the potential amendments, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office said last week that City Council “looks forward to advancing our shared goals of full compliance with the Settlement Agreement and strengthening the relationship between the Portland Police Bureau and the Portland community.”

The settlement agreement called for measures to prevent future incidents of people being injured or killed by police due to circumstances caused by behavioral health issues, but it didn't prevent additional fatalities.

In 2021, 46-year-old Robert Delgado was shot and killed by PPB officers at Lents Park while he was unhoused and experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

Delgado’s family brought a civil lawsuit against the city earlier this year over Delgado’s death.

Portland City Council will hear public testimony tomorrow (Wednesday, November 8) at 2 pm, and afterward is scheduled to vote on whether or not to approve the switch to an independent monitor for the Portland Police Bureau.