Lawmakers last week completed a special session notable for its efficiency, bipartisanship and an unprecedented focus on police accountability, forced by four weeks of street protests.
The session began on shaky ground with Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod (R-Stayton) beefing about the rules in a way that suggested the GOP could walk out for the third session in a row.
"Without the ability to create or amend legislation, my colleagues and I are legislators by name only during the special session," Girod said June 24.
But a whirlwind of lawmaking concluded in 72 hours with the unlikely specter of the building's savviest Republican celebrating police reform, not something that's usually a GOP priority.
"This bipartisan legislation will bring meaningful change to policing in Oregon," House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) said after lawmakers passed a slate of reform bills brought by the People of Color caucus, led by Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland).
The moral force of a national uprising against police brutality, combined with the urgency of a pandemic, forced an unusual spirit of cooperation in the Capitol. The result? Lawmakers tackled police accountability to a degree rarely seen, and they took advantage of the truce to pass bills long delayed by partisan bickering.
We took a closer look at what mattered from a whirlwind session.
Here's what the special session accomplished on police accountability, and what it didn't.
1. Officer misconduct will be tracked more closely. House Bill 4205 requires officers to intervene or report to a supervisor within 72 hours when a fellow officer engages in misconduct. The misconduct that must be reported includes unjustified or excessive use of force, sexual misconduct and discrimination.
House Bill 4207 requires the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to create and maintain a statewide online database that tracks suspensions and revocations of certificates. Before a law enforcement agency can extend a job offer to a new officer, it must review his or her personnel file from the previous agency for which the officer worked. "We've been working on that legislation for a number of years," says Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities. "It makes it easier to get a complete background. That's a big deal."
2. Tear gas and chokeholds will undergo scrutiny. House Bills 4203 and 4208 banned chokeholds and tear gas, respectively. But both bills include provisions that put their use in a gray area rather than ban them outright.
HB 4203 says chokeholds are not allowed "unless the circumstance is one in which the peace officer may use deadly physical force." Portland civil rights lawyer Jason Kafoury says the state's definition of "deadly force" is so broad, chokeholds will still be permissible in some circumstances. "They've raised the bar on chokeholds," Kafoury says, "but I still think there's a lot of arguments cops can make to say [suspects] were using deadly force."
Similarly, HB 4208 purports to ban tear gas, also known as CS gas. But the bill includes a notable loophole: Police can deploy tear gas for the purpose of crowd control "in circumstances constituting a riot." By the state's definition of "riot," the police can use gas anytime five or more people gather, engage in "tumultuous and violent conduct," and won't disperse after being ordered to do so. "It doesn't do that much because [police] can declare a riot pretty openly," Kafoury says. "I'm not sure how that's going to decrease tear gas use."
3. Investigations of deadly use of force might still be influenced by conflicts of interest. As WW previously reported, lawmakers used Senate Bill 1604 to chip away at the arbitration rules that make it difficult to fire bad cops. They made less progress shifting the investigation of police shootings away from local governments to an independent agency.
House Bill 4201 sought to require the Oregon Attorney General's Office to investigate incidents of deadly force. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum's office expressed support for the bill's intent, but said it needed more time to plan how the investigative agency would work and how to pay for it. Lawmakers punted the idea to another session.
Republican walkouts in 2019 and 2020 made Oregon a national laughingstock. Here are three bills that passed on bipartisan votes because Republicans stuck around.
1. Senate Bill 1603 increases taxes on cellphones to fund rural broadband. The bill, prepped earlier this year, aims to bring broadband to digital deserts in rural communities. Although no Republican ever wants to be recorded supporting a tax increase, the measure drew GOP votes, at least in the House—in part because it benefits constituents of red districts.
2. Senate Bill 1602 turns down the temperature on hostilities between the timber industry and environmental groups jockeying over potential ballot initiatives. It requires public notice of the aerial application of pesticides to forests while also convening representatives of both sides to discuss further changes. It passed the House unanimously and got all but two votes in the Senate. "The first steps toward the end of the timber wars," one lobbyist said.
3. House Bill 4213 extends Gov. Kate Brown's March executive order freezing residential and commercial evictions through the end of September. It had been slated to end June 30. It also adds a six-month repayment period for missed rent. The bill won Republican support in both chambers. "Housing stability is so critical during this pandemic," testified Alison McIntosh of the Oregon Housing Alliance.