Police Reform Progress 2021
Despite months of sustained protests against police brutality, Portland has witnessed its own surge in police violence in the past year.
According to the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB's) own data, Portland police have used force—in the form of rubber bullets, baton strikes, tear gas volleys, and other physical acts—more than 6,000 times against protesters in 2020. An October report by Physicians for Human Rights determined that Portland police’s violence directed at protesters violated the United Nations’ law enforcement guidelines on less-lethal munition use.
This trend of police force in 2020 has lasting impacts on Portland’s legal standing with the federal government. In January 2020, lawyers with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that the City of Portland and the PPB had met all the requirements of a settlement agreement forged between the city and the DOJ in 2014, meant to resolve PPB’s practice of using excessive force against people with a mental illness. The settlement agreement introduced new accountability measures within PPB, including policies limiting use-of-force and requiring officers to report any physical force they use against a member of the public by the end of their work shift.
In order to finally exit the long-winded settlement agreement, the city needed to remain in compliance with the DOJ stipulations for one year. But because of the way Portland police handled 2020’s protests, the DOJ found PPB to be out of compliance by February 2021. DOJ attorneys pointed to countless incidents of officers using disproportionate amounts of force against crowds of people and failures to meet training requirements. The city’s attorneys called this determination unfair, since PPB could not have prepared for more than 100 days of sustained protest during a pandemic. The city also pointed fingers at the feds, calling the DOJ hypocritical because federal officers also used disproportionate force against Portlanders in 2020.
This argument hasn’t convinced the DOJ. It’s now on the DOJ and city to come to terms on what needs to happen before the city can again meet the requirements laid out in the settlement agreement. If the two parties can’t strike an agreement, the DOJ is expected to ask the federal judge who oversees the case, District Judge Michael Simon, to "devise an appropriate remedy" to ensure the city complies.
The past year has also seen a recurrence of the very issue that brought the DOJ to Portland in the first place: Disproportionate use of force against people with mental illnesses.
On April 16, Portland officer Zachary DeLong responded to a 911 call alerting officers to a man with a gun in Lents Park. Minutes after arriving on the scene, DeLong had fatally shot Robert Delgado, a 46-year-old man who had allegedly been carrying a toy gun. Delgado has been living unhoused in and around the Lents neighborhood for years, and his family said he had an undiagnosed mental illness.
When Portland police shoot or kill members of the public, the event is usually investigated by PPB detectives and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s (MCDA) office. When the investigation is concluded, MCDA attorneys present evidence to a grand jury to determine whether or not the officer should be charged with a crime. Police accountability advocates have long criticized this model, since county prosecutors often have supportive relationships with police—creating an inherent conflict of interest.
“I think the public ultimately believes in policing, but there’s clearly a lack of trust in the PPB by the community at large.” - Mayor Ted Wheeler
In hopes of building trust in the process, District Attorney Mike Schmidt’s office is partnering with Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office to investigate DeLong’s actions. Attorneys with the state Department of Justice will present evidence to grand jurors alongside MCDA prosecutors. Schmidt told the Mercury he’s hopeful the novel process will provide a trustworthy model for police investigations in the future. “This is a learning experience,” Schmidt said.
Several other misconduct investigations into PPB have taken center stage in 2021. In early March, PPB investigated a false allegation that Commissioner Hardesty had committed a hit-and-run, and that information was somehow leaked to a right-wing media outlet. Hardesty characterized the incident as a “smear campaign” against her by officers who resented her attention to police reforms.
“As someone who’s been working on police accountability for 32 years, I can tell you that this is a normal tactic used to discredit people who want to put accountability into our police force,” said Hardesty during a press conference later that day.
PPB eventually published a press release clearing Hardesty’s name, with the explanation that the subject of the hit-and-run had wrongly believed the suspect to be Hardesty. Not long after, PPA President Brian Hunzeker abruptly resigned from his position at the PPA, saying the decision was tied to a “serious mistake” related to the investigation into the hit-and-run. Hunzeker remains an active officer with PPB. Nearly three months later, it remains unknown why Hunzeker stepped down from his post.
On the heels of this news, Wheeler announced a series of investigations into PPB’s handling of this incident.
The city is specifically conducting two internal investigations into the leak’s origins—one into the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), which oversees 911 calls, and the other into PPB. Wheeler has also authorized two contracts with the OIR Group, a California-based firm that analyzes police. One contract directs the OIR Group to conduct an outside investigation into the leak misidentifying Hardesty, the other asks for a more comprehensive investigation into the culture of PPB, and the role that racial and political biases play within the bureau. The results of these investigations are expected by the end of 2021.
Like Schmidt, Wheeler’s focus is building the public’s trust in the city’s policing system.
“I think the public ultimately believes in policing, but there’s clearly a lack of trust in the PPB by the community at large,” Wheeler told the Mercury. “We need to daylight these issues to build that trust. My goal here isn’t to beat up the police bureau, my goal is to make them more responsible.”