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With a New Chief Chosen, Portland Keeps Grappling Over the Same Police Reforms

The first black woman chief in city history will encounter a fraught history of activist-vs.-union battles.

Note: After WW's press deadlines, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler delayed a City Council vote on a new police oversight body. The proposal to change the 48-hour rule also changed, and a new policy will be presented to council in two weeks. The city will return to its "status quo" policy of compelling testimony in the immediate aftermath of an officer-involved shooting until then. 

Portland is getting a new police chief: Danielle Outlaw, the first black woman ever named to the job. She's coming from Oakland—and entering a city still fighting the same old battles about overseeing cops.

On Aug. 10, the Portland City Council will vote on proposed changes to the city’s policing policies. Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposals have outraged police watchdogs and activists, who jammed council chambers last week to object.

Here's what Wheeler put on the menu—and why it's not appetizing to some.

Public oversight
Wheeler wants to create a new public oversight body to replace the Community Oversight Advisory Board, which dissolved last August amid infighting and ineffectuality. The city is required to have such a group to comply with a 2012 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which found a "pattern and practice" of excessive force against people suffering from mental illness.

Wheeler's spokesman Michael Cox says the mayor's proposed new group, the Portland Commission on Community-Engaged Policing, would solve the biggest problem that doomed the old one—"they couldn't get feedback on their recommendations." But Wheeler's proposed group has drawn criticism for lacking independence from the mayor, closing its meetings to the public, and having too few members.

The 48-hour rule
Last year, then-Mayor Charlie Hales negotiated a new contract with the police union that erased a longtime policy that said officers who fatally shot someone had 48 hours to get their stories straight before speaking to disciplinary investigators. But this summer, the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office said it couldn't prosecute criminal charges against a police officer who had been compelled to talk.

Now Wheeler is trying a work-around: compelling the testimony but keeping it secret from investigators. Most criminal justice reform groups in the city have cheered moves to strike the 48-hour rule. But Wheeler's original proposal would have put the changes on hold until a court determined the city would not be in violation of state law. Activists raised hell over the delay—and Wheeler's office decided to amend the proposal to take effect immediately.

Changes to the city police watchdog
The city's Independent Police Review, which investigates shootings by cops, is also submitting code changes that would allow it to offer recommendations for city action at the end of its reports. But commanding officers in the Portland Police Bureau won't have to abide by IPR's suggestions. Constantin Severe, director of IPR, says it's a small but useful step forward—and it's comparatively uncontroversial.