Police Reform Progress 2021
After the June 2020 budget vote, Wheeler released his own “19-point police reform action plan,” detailing ways his office will improve and adjust policing in Portland.
A number of those reforms included actions made in the budget (like “remove police officers from schools”), and others were as simple as showing support for state legislators’ policing bills. Wheeler also proposed a few new policies, like requiring the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to get approval from City Council before purchasing military-style weapons. This policy, first proposed by former Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, passed a council vote in December. A year later, 13 of Wheeler’s 19 reforms have been completed.
Those that remain unfinished include a new PPB policy that will change how officers interact with drivers during traffic stops. Under the drafted policy, which is nearly final, officers who wish to search a person’s vehicle must first explain to that person what their rights are—in short, police will have to tell drivers that they can refuse the search. Per the policy, the audio of this entire interaction must be recorded by the officer. According to Wheeler’s office, this policy just needs a final authorization from Wheeler and PPB Chief Chuck Lovell before becoming law.
New PPB policies also came as a result of officers' actions during racial justice protests. In September 2020, after PPB officers spent months coating crowds of protesters in CS gas—a commonly used tear gas—Wheeler banned its use by all Portland police. This decision felt long overdue to many locals, including members of the activist group Don’t Shoot Portland who sued the city in June for its police officers’ “indiscriminate” use of tear gas and impact munitions on largely peaceful crowds of Portlanders. Wheeler’s ban also came after PPB spent $11,000 to restock its tear gas inventory over the summer.
Wheeler’s CS ban is still in place for PPB officers. Yet the city is still facing penalties related to the Don’t Shoot Portland lawsuit. In December, a federal judge found that Portland police had repeatedly violated a temporary restraining order prohibiting officers from using so-called “less-lethal” impact munitions against non-violent protesters. In March, the judge ordered sanctions against PPB for these violations, which included mandatory training for PPB’s Rapid Response Team (the officers who are responsible for shooting less-lethal impact munitions) and specifically barred Officer Brent Taylor—an officer responsible for several of the restraining order violations—from working at protest events. The sanctions also included an ordered investigation into Taylor’s misconduct.
According to Juan Chavez, an attorney with Oregon Justice Resource Center who is representing Don’t Shoot Portland, his legal team is currently working to upgrade the pending litigation to a class action lawsuit.
Another piece of litigation stemming from officers’ protest response has forced new policies on PPB. In late June 2020, the ACLU of Oregon filed a lawsuit against Portland on behalf of a group of local journalists and legal observers—including Mercury reporters—accusing PPB officers of targeting members of the press and legal observer volunteers with violence and arrest for documenting the racial justice protests. The lawsuit detailed incidents in which Portland police shot tear gas, impact munitions, and rubber bullets at individuals, and described how these actions had a “chilling effect” on free speech and press freedoms. Days later, a federal judge approved a temporary restraining order against Portland police, prohibiting officers from dispersing, arresting, or using physical force against clearly identified press and legal observers at protests. The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit against the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in July, and managed to get federal police under the same restraining order as PPB by the court.
Both of those restrictions remain in place, meaning press and legal observers are safeguarded from targeted police violence during protests. The plaintiffs in both the federal and local cases are now in the process of reaching an agreed-upon settlement in each case.
Protesters’ calls for police accountability gave momentum to another long-requested policy change at the city level. Following a campaign led by Commissioner Hardesty, 82 percent of Portlanders voted in November to change how police misconduct is investigated and penalized. The ballot measure amended the city charter to allow for a new police oversight board made up of members of the public (not police) that would be empowered to investigate complaints against PPB officers and mandate officer discipline for misconduct. Currently, those responsibilities can only be performed by members of law enforcement and city employees in the Independent Police Review (IPR) office, a process that’s largely carried out behind closed doors.
This new board’s future now lies in the hands of another commission, one made up of 20 volunteers appointed by city commissioners, which will be responsible for drafting the structure and workflow of this new city oversight board. That commission, which will be finalized in the coming weeks, has 18 months to prepare a proposal for Portland City Council detailing the framework of the new oversight board. That means the board won’t be established for at least two more years, leaving the current system within the IPR and PPB’s Internal Affairs office at the helm.
The future of the IPR has created a flashpoint in City Council conversations surrounding this new board. City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who oversees the IPR, has criticized the way City Council has spoken about the new oversight system, accusing elected officials of ostracizing IPR staff in the process. In what’s been perceived by council staff as a form of protest, Hull Caballero has prohibited IPR staff from lending their expertise to the new board’s creation.
Hull Caballero has also raised alarm about her ability to retain IPR staff who investigate police misconduct, since their work will be phased out by the creation of the new oversight board in several years’ time. To appease these staffing concerns, Wheeler included an amendment in this coming year’s proposed budget that pledges to keep 14 police oversight positions in IPR through June 30, 2023, “giving Council two fiscal years to implement a new voter-approved police oversight board.” The amendment also commits City Council to finding those 14 staff members new city positions once the board replaces their work.
The new system has also faced expected pushback from the Portland Police Association (PPA), the union that represents rank-and-file PPB officers. Two days after the passage of the ballot measure creating the oversight board, PPA leadership filed a grievance against PPB, accusing the bureau of unilaterally making changes to the PPA’s contract with the city without reaching an agreement with the union first. The city is hoping to address this at the state legislature with Senate Bill 621, which would remove the requirement for cities to collectively bargain with police unions if they intend to implement a voter-approved community oversight board with the authority to discipline police. SB 621 has been approved in the Senate and is currently awaiting approval by the Oregon House.
It’s not the only state bill introduced in the past year that targets police accountability in ways that will impact policing in Portland.
In a June special legislative session, lawmakers approved several police reform bills: One that makes it easier for cities to fire or discipline police officers who commit misconduct, one that prohibits the use of tear gas unless a riot has been declared by law enforcement, one banning chokeholds unless deadly force is warranted, one requiring officers to report fellow police for potential misconduct, and another creating a public records database of officer misconduct.
More police reform bills are snaking through the current legislative session, which began on January 21. A number of them passed the Oregon House in late April, and are now headed to the Senate. Those include:
• House Bill 2513, which would require police officers be trained in airway and circulatory anatomy and instructs officers to request medical assistance if a person they’re restraining is experiencing respiratory or cardiac difficulties
• House Bill 2936, which would create a uniform, statewide background check process for law enforcement agencies
• House Bill 2986, which would mandate officers be trained to investigate bias crimes based on gender
• House Bill 3047, which would create civil penalties for disclosing personal information (or “doxxing”)
• House Bill 3059, which would remove the requirement of officers to arrest people who don’t disperse from an area when an unlawful assembly is declared by police
• House Bill 3164, which would change the crime of “interference with a peace officer” to exclude instances of passive resistance
• House Bill 3273, which would bar law enforcement agencies from publishing mugshots
• House Bill 3355, which would require officers working during crowd control settings to have clear identification on their uniforms.
A newer bill introduced in the House, House Bill 2002, aims to crack down on policing inequities by limiting officers’ ability to stop drivers for minor traffic violations, like a broken taillight. The bill’s intention is to address the racial disparity reflected in traffic stops involving small traffic infractions: In 2018, a city audit found that Portland’s former Gun Violence Reduction Team was routinely using minor traffic violations as an excuse to stop drivers they suspected were involved in gang activity. And, according to the audit, 59 percent of drivers that the officers pulled were Black. HB 2002 also works to limit potential harassment by the police by barring officers from arresting individuals on nearly 20 misdemeanor charges, including criminal trespassing, interfering with public transportation, and forgery.
“What’s important to remember is that it’s not anti-police, it’s pro-community. The system wasn’t working for everyone, and I think we’ve responded appropriately.” - Rep. Janelle Bynum
Many of these bills have been introduced by lawmakers of color that represent geographic slices of Portland’s metro region, including North Portland Senator Lew Frederick, East Portland Senator Kayse Jama, and Happy Valley Representative Janelle Bynum.
Bynum said that over the course of holding hearings on these bills in the past year, she’s seen two distinct shifts. First, she said, the calls for justice and police accountability she brought to the legislature when she entered office in 2017 are no longer seen as “outrageous” by other lawmakers. And second, Bynum said, is the impact that public outcry and activism has had on police.
“Law enforcement has come to the table in a way they haven’t before,” Bynum said, noting invitations she’s received to speak with police unions and law enforcement lobbyist groups. “I think they see the writing is on the wall, that things are going to change, and that they need to be part of it.”
Bynum is hopeful that this session’s policing bills will be signed into law by the time the session ends in June, and that the work will earn Oregon recognition.
“If I’m not mistaken, it will be the broadest and deepest package any state will have passed in terms of community safety,” said Bynum. “What’s important to remember is that it’s not anti-police, it’s pro-community. The system wasn’t working for everyone, and I think we’ve responded appropriately.”