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Oregon Lawmakers Say Police Oversight Shouldn’t Be Up for Bargaining

To create a new police oversight board, Portland has to change state law.

CHIEF SPONSOR: Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland)

WHAT IT WOULD DO: Senate Bill 621 amends state law regarding labor negotiations with public employee unions so that voter-approved police oversight boards could operate in "full force and effect" without being subject to mandatory collective bargaining.

THE PROBLEM IT SOLVES: SB 621 is inextricably linked to Measure 26-217, which Portland voters passed in November by a 4-to-1 margin. The measure, championed by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, enshrined in the city charter a police oversight board that has the authority to investigate officers, compel officer testimony and other witness statements, subpoena documents, and take final disciplinary action against cops—including firing them.

But current state law says the discipline process for public employees must be decided via collective bargaining. Without SB 621, Portland's oversight board would most likely go to the bargaining table, where City Hall would face off against the Portland Police Association. From there, the oversight board could go to arbitration, where the board's survival would be tenuous.

"Other cities are watching this very closely," Frederick said on the Senate floor April 5. "The deaths [and] broken bones created when excessive force is used will not be dismissed as collateral damage, the expected cost of some war in the neighborhoods of our Oregon."

WHO SUPPORTS IT: The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon; the Rev. Dr. LeRoy Haynes, chairman of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform; and Oregon's chapter of Service Employees International Union, to name a few.

Supporters say Senate Bill 621 is vital to the success of Portland's oversight board. Darren Golden, a campaign manager for Measure 26-217 now lobbying for SB 621 on behalf of the Real Police Accountability PAC, says state laws pertaining to public employees have been an "unforeseen barrier" to establishing the police oversight board.

"As we began having discussions with legislators, they said, 'OK, we see that you carried out the most democratic process possible,'" Golden says. "Eighty-one percent of the people said, 'We want this board.' There should be no reason that a state statute should stand in the way of this board being implemented."

Golden points out that the bill applies only to disciplinary boards that oversee law enforcement. It does not affect collective bargaining laws for other public employees like teachers or transportation workers.

WHO OPPOSES IT: Seven senators voted no April 5: five Republicans, plus Sens. Brian Boquist (I-Dallas) and Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose).

The bill has also drawn opposition from the Portland Police Association and, by extension, the state's law enforcement lobbying arm, the Oregon Coalition of Police & Sheriffs, better known as ORCOPS.

ORCOPS lobbyist Michael Selvaggio testified during a March 9 hearing for SB 621 that the city misled voters when campaigning for Measure 26-217 because it promised to comply with all legal obligations set forth in the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act when enacting the board.

Selvaggio said ORCOPS polled 309 voters and determined that Measure 26-217 would have lost by a margin of 58.5% to 41.5% if voters had known the city would later seek to amend collective bargaining laws.

"Passing Senate Bill 621 would be a terribly dangerous precedent to set," Selvaggio said. "Indeed, every local government would now feel compelled to come to the Legislature to change the rules to tilt the scales entirely in management's favor at the local bargaining tables."

Ongoing labor negotiations between the city and its police union, which resume April 7, raised some concern among lawmakers.

"I have to tell you, I've had some real, long, difficult thoughts about this bill. I believe that we have to hold police officers accountable, and we need review boards," Sen. Chris Gorsek (D-Troutdale) said Monday before voting yes. "But I don't like it when cities and counties bring things to the Legislature to circumvent what's going on at the local level."

Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena), one of four Republicans to vote yes, also expressed hesitancy prior to the vote.

"I'm a little bit torn here because, on the one hand, I want to hold police accountable," Hansell said, "but, on the other hand, I don't want it to be a witch hunt against police as well."

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: The bill passed the Senate on April 5 by a 20-7 vote, mostly along party lines. SB 621 awaits its first reading in the House.

Frederick noted to his colleagues that SB 621 is one of several police reform bills before the Legislature this session.

"You may hear that these bills are not needed, that the police will or already have effectively policed the police," he said. "Any comments to that effect clearly try to ignore the videos, reports and basic evidence in the most recent past and, more importantly, decades of promises."