A proposal for a long-awaited new police oversight panel will soon come before the Portland City Council—and council members are already signaling it may be in trouble.
After the George Floyd protests, 82% of Portland voters in November 2020 approved the creation of a new police oversight board that would have the authority to investigate, discipline and fire police officers who engaged in misconduct. And the new panel would be funded by an amount equivalent to 5% of the Police Bureau’s budget.
The ballot measure, spearheaded by then-Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, came at a time when Portlanders wanted greater oversight of their police and were unhappy with the existing groups entrusted with that work.
Mayor Ted Wheeler and his council colleagues declined to answer questions for this story (Commissioner Dan Ryan is on vacation), which may reflect the delicacy of the issue of police oversight. But it’s clear that much has changed in the council’s appetite for the shifts Hardesty sought. In 2020, the council wanted fewer cops and greater scrutiny of those it had. Today, Portland faces higher crime and open drug markets on downtown streets.
Over the past two years, a 20-member Police Accountability Commission has drawn up a blueprint for how to implement the ballot measure. After the panel finalizes its recommendations at the end of the month, the City Council has 60 days to make changes before sending the plan to the U.S. Department of Justice for review (it must comply with a 2014 DOJ settlement agreement with the city).
Any part of the plan not explicitly mandated by Measure 26-217 is fair game for alteration.
And there are signs that the City Council—whose members have drawn criticism from without and within for their hands-off approach to a 2022 ballot measure that changed Portland’s form of government—is wary of the upcoming proposal.
“There’s nothing the city is more concerned about right now than public safety. And if people feel that we’re messing with public safety, or in any way weakening it, they will react,” Mayor Wheeler said at a May 17 presentation by the Police Accountability Commission. “I also don’t want two years from now somebody saying, ‘How could you guys not have seen this mess coming?’ if it goes the way I think it could go.”
The panel met 150 times to refine its ideas. Still, some of them may turn heads.
The group proposes a 33-member board, for instance, an unusually large size for a decision-making panel: just last month, City Commissioners Rene Gonzalez and Dan Ryan raised the question of whether the new City Council, which will increase from five to 12 members, will be too big.
Another unusual idea: Each of the 33 board members could be paid up to $7,400 annually and provided free mental health care. (It is rare for members of public boards and commissions to be paid more than a nominal amount for expenses.)
Ten percent of the board’s overall budget, the commission recommends, should be spent on board members. That could include child and dependent care, therapy and personal security.
The board would hire a director, and the commission recommends that the new bureau have up to 56 staff. Staff would conduct investigations (it’s not yet determined how much involvement the board would have in investigations itself) and present findings to panels of the board (with larger panels for cases involving deadly force) that determine a verdict and associated discipline.
The new board will use the standard of preponderance of evidence for finding wrongdoing by a police officer. Cops accused of wrongdoing by the board could appeal to a secondary panel, also made up of board members.
Wheeler warned the committee in May that it needed to be careful about overreaching and losing public confidence.
“When it comes to police oversight, we’ve seen specific examples where police oversight boards have exploded in spectacular style due to a loss of legitimacy,” he said.
Parts of the proposal—such as the size of the board and how it processes cases—were not explicitly laid out in the ballot measure, and are therefore subject to change by the City Council.
But there are parts of the ballot measure passed that cannot be changed. No police or their immediate family, for instance, are allowed on the board. Neither are former cops. Per the terms of the measure, the City Council, which appoints board members, should prioritize applicants with lived experience of police discrimination. Applicants should be racially diverse and the board should also include members who have been impacted by addiction and mental illness. The new oversight body shall have the authority to subpoena testimony and compel documentation, the measure mandates.
The oversight panel’s budget—which the measure said could be no less than 5% of the Portland Police Bureau budget (what would amount to $12 million this year) is nonnegotiable, too.
Council members, and particularly Mayor Wheeler, the police commissioner, have expressed reservations.
“My concern is that if this is not seen as a balanced, fair approach to police accountability, it will quickly be seen by the public and by our employees as an illegitimate process,” Wheeler said at the May 17 meeting. “Then we’ll have a major mess on our hands.”
PAC members assured the council that they had conferred with law enforcement throughout the process, including the Portland Police Association, and that officers would retain the due process rights they have under the current system. Katherine McDowell, a PAC member, reminded the council May 17 that parts of the measure were now written into the city’s charter.
“The measure says what it says about clearly wanting an independent board and setting aside a certain budget amount,” McDowell said. “We’re looking at those as given. We don’t have that discretion.”
Commissioner Gonzalez says the City Council cannot just be a rubber stamp for the Police Accountability Commission.
“The question for us is, how do we assure fidelity to what voters approved, but as elected officials, when we see unintended consequences of what was approved, how do we adjust?” Gonzalez asked at the May 17 meeting.
In a sign that she is uncomfortable with the new oversight panel’s generous budget, Commissioner Carmen Rubio, recently asked the cIty attorney if some of it could be allocated to the cash-strapped Portland Street Response program. (It may not be; such a change would require a charter amendment, the City Attorney’s Office told Rubio.)
All five council members of the City Council laid out their concerns in a June 9 letter to the PAC. They warned the panel to ensure its proposal met legal standards, asked the PAC to clarify qualifications for board members, and urged the group to make recommendations “based on accurate information and distinguishing between statements of perception and statements of fact.”
A spokesperson for the Police Accountability Commission did not immediately respond to questions. Its proposal is currently being vetted by outside legal counsel to ensure it meets all legal standards.