A police oversight measure approved by Portland voters was supposed to help restore police accountability and public trust, but some say a move by Portland City Council only threatens to erode public confidence.
In 2020, 82 percent of Portland voters approved Measure 26-217, which called for a new, independent, community-led oversight board to investigate, recommend policy, and impose discipline on employees of the Portland Police Bureau. The current system utilizes an Independent Police Review to investigate complaints, but prevents it from disciplining officers.
In response, the city appointed an all-volunteer advisory group called the Police Accountability Commission (PAC) to develop parameters and guidelines for how the new system should function.
In September, the City Council accepted the PAC’s recommendations for a new Community Board for Police Accountability (CBPA) but on Wednesday, the bulk of the PAC’s former members said the city’s attorneys and council staff had watered down their recommendations and undermined the system of checks and balances that voters approved.
A key provision in the police oversight measure called for a board with members from diverse backgrounds. It bars current police and their immediate family members from serving on the new investigative board. It also doesn’t allow former law enforcement employees to serve–a caveat that some on the City Council took exception to.
The membership requirements were meant to ensure the new board is impartial, and free of police influence. Critics, including Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Rene Gonzalez and Dan Ryan, say the rules prevent those with relevant experience from lending insight.
“I am concerned that we don’t have that perspective at the table and I think a lot of voters were caught off guard by that,” Commissioner Ryan said during a PAC presentation to council in September.
The PAC said the CBPA should include people familiar with police policy and practice, and should include at least some members who’ve been impacted by over-policing and racism.
The city’s revised code language now calls for a nominating committee that includes a representative designated by the chief of police; and a representative from each of the two police unions representing PPB employees. Nominations will be sent to City Council for final approval.
The city’s revisions also reduce the size of the new oversight board from 33 to 21 members, and require all oversight board members to participate in a Portland Police Bureau (PPB) ride-along and community academy.
The council supported Commissioner Carmen Rubio’s request to amend the nominating committee to include two people from the city’s Citizen Review Committee, in an effort to include more community voice. That change wasn’t enough to garner support from critics.
PAC members say the city’s revisions are heavy deviations from what they recommended.
“You took our report and scribbled on it,” Lovisa Lloyd, a former member of the PAC, told the council. “These edits are baffling, unnecessary, insensitive, and ill-informed. They do not comport with the city’s values.”
The comments came during a City Council meeting Wednesday, November 15. The meeting culminated in hours of public testimony before the council voted unanimously to send its code language for the new police oversight board to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and a federal judge for approval.
The city needs approval from the federal government for any major changes to its policing system, because of a years-long settlement agreement with the DOJ to correct an alleged pattern of excessive force and constitutional violations by the Portland Police Bureau.
Attorneys for the city said most of the PAC’s recommendations on the scope and parameters were retained, but some had to be tweaked or scrapped, to avoid potential legal conflicts. PAC members refuted those claims, noting the entire PAC report with recommendations was reviewed by an outside attorney, prior to submission.
Ahead of Wednesday's vote, Seemab Hussaini, a former PAC member, rallied for community support of the PAC, warning that city leaders were trying to weaken the PAC's work.
"The police cannot police themselves," Hussaini said, noting concern over three members of law enforcement being added to a board nomination committee, and language that seeks to "weed out" those with lived experience of police brutality from the board. Hussaini also told the Mercury the city is working to prevent the public's access to CBPA board hearings.
Tim Pitts, a former PAC member and real estate agency owner, said the PAC held more than 120 meetings and did extensive community engagement. The PAC also met with council.
“We held a work session with you in May that ended 30 minutes early, because you had so few questions for us,” Pitts said. “Why didn’t you take that chance to guide us?”
Pitts reminded the council that the PAC invited the Police Commanding Officers Association to its meetings multiple times, only to have the union cancel.
“They would not give us 20 minutes to help craft the proposal and you want them to nominate people to the board,” Pitts said. “People say the city of Portland doesn’t work right now, and this is a great example of why. Elected officials ask citizens to spend thousands of hours volunteering, and then you ignore our work when we’re done.”
Pitts and others say a credible, intentional police accountability board is necessary, as evidenced by the millions of dollars paid out by the city to settle bodily injury and excessive force lawsuits against PPB.
The council heard from several residents lambasting the city’s revisions, but others asked the council to scrap the voter approved measure altogether, and send it back to voters.
Kristin Olson, an attorney in Portland, argued the city is different than it was in 2020 and voters didn’t understand the scope of Measure 26-217 when it passed.
Olson argued the police oversight board will discourage new hires from wanting to join PPB. “If you do not send this ballot measure back to the voters, it will continue to decimate our police force."
Others claimed the PAC was stacked with “anti-police bias.”
Wednesday’s vote wasn’t the final approval of code change language, rather, a chance for council to vote on a document to submit to the DOJ.
But PAC volunteers, along with at least half a dozen other members of the public, urged the city to pause, and instead wait until after conferring with the PAC about the proposed changes.
Heidi Brown, a city attorney, noted additional input and suggestions are still being accepted by the city via an email address before final adoption of code language, but the city is on a deadline to submit a draft to the DOJ. Brown said it’s possible the proposed police oversight code language could get updated before adoption.
“I support the resolution as amended today, but if legal counsel comes back to council, I want to assure everyone, I will keep an open mind,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said, before casting his vote of approval.