Killing All Cop Bills

Who's stopping police reform in the Capitol?

State Rep. Lew Frederick entered the 2011 Legislature with a package of bills he hoped would respond to the six officer-involved shootings last year in Portland.

Halfway through the session, Frederick (D-North/Northeast Portland) now says all four measures to reform police oversight are either dead or dying.

"There's not a block on it, but there's not a lot of enthusiasm by any means," says Frederick, who's in his first full session in the Legislature.

Who killed the bills? Asked for his view on whodunit, Frederick points a finger at four ex-cops elected to serve in the state House—including three on the 10-member House Judiciary Committee that holds life-or-death power over most police-reform efforts in the Capitol.

The committee is co-chaired by Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha), a retired Portland police lieutenant, and Rep. Wayne Krieger (R-Gold Beach), a retired trooper for the Oregon State Police.

Rep. Andy Olson (R-Albany), a retired State Police lieutenant, also serves on the Judiciary Committee. And Rep. Sherrie Sprenger (R-Scio), a retired Benton County sheriff's deputy, is not on Judiciary but is viewed as influential on law-enforcement issues in Salem. (Rep. Greg Matthews, a Democrat from Gresham, is also a former cop.)

The fact that 8 percent of Oregon's 60 House representatives (and 30 percent of the House Judiciary Committee) are ex-cops points to the respect that police enjoy among voters.

And the twist that four of those reps take credit for killing Frederick's bills highlights the remarkable influence they enjoy over efforts to change state laws on police oversight.

"When you have the police making the laws, what have you got?" asks Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch. "I'm not saying Oregon is a police state. But it has the taint of a police state when you have so many law-enforcement officers sitting on committees where they're deciding whether the police should be held accountable for shooting people."

Among other effects, Frederick's bills would have:

  1. Mandated drug tests and expanded psychological counseling for cops who use deadly force. (See Murmurs, for the latest on testing Portland cops for steroids.)
  2. Required the Oregon Department of Justice to probe deadly-force incidents instead of leaving those investigations to local agencies.
  3. Mandated sporadic psychological evaluations as a condition for continued police certification.
  4. Required a state study of racial profiling, community policing and minority hiring in police agencies.
  5. Mandated a statewide study of police training.

Krieger, Barker, Sprenger and Olson say they worried the bills mandated a statewide fix to a Portland-specific issue.

"I'm not saying Portland doesn't have a problem. I'm not in a position to decide," Sprenger says. "But let's look at other remedies before we look at [changing state law]."

Krieger is even more blunt.

"The mayor, the city commissioners, the district attorney [and] the city police need to take care of their own house," he says. "I'm not gonna have some outside influence come in."

Barker says he consulted Portland Police Chief Mike Reese and Officer Daryl Turner, who heads the 900-member Portland police union. The chief and union president found common ground in opposing the bills.

Barker says Reese assured him many of the issues were already being addressed inside the Police Bureau. But Barker says he was also concerned about creating additional expenses for the cash-strapped state.

In the end, Barker says, his opposition to the bills came from his own experience as a lawmaker and a cop—not out of favoritism to the police.

"There's a lot of myths of the thin blue line," Barker says. "If there's a problem, I would take a look at it. But these weren't the solutions."

State Sen. Chip Shields (D-North/Northeast Portland) tried to push a similar bill in the Senate to mandate DOJ probes, drug testing and more counseling after deadly-force incidents. 

Shields says the Senate bill also is dead. He blames Portland police-reform advocates in part for failing to make their presence felt in Salem.

"The groups that are interested in this need to be down here working the bill," Shields says.

Rev. T. Allen Bethel heads the Albina Ministerial Alliance, an outspoken group on police reform in Portland. He says his community faces significant barriers to access in the Capitol.

"The community does not have a lobbyist who is paid full-time to be down in Salem," Bethel says. "What the community does is go to the polls and vote, and we elect these officials to represent our interests. If they cannot do that, the community has the right to go back to the polls at election time and remove them.” 

WWeek 2015

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