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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Council Finally Ready to Fill Police Reform Oversight Post

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Jul 24, 2013 at 1:44 PM

Eight months after reaching a tentative deal with the feds on police reform, settling accusations that Portland police use excessive force against people with mental illness, Portland city commissioners today finally signaled they were ready to solicit applications for the compliance officer whose supposed to be in charge of overseeing the deal.

"This is the next step I see," said Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who promised to bring a proposal leading to a call for résumés within the next couple of weeks. Fritz has been tapped by Mayor Charlie Hales to help him preside over police reform.

That word came as the city council unanimously approved a "collaborative agreement" (pdf) with a long-critical advocacy group, the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, that tweaks the city's deal with the US Department of Justice by adding more public involvement and forcing the bureau to be more transparent on how it's implementing reforms.

The AMA agreement, you'll remember, was one of the bright spots in last week's somewhat sour news that the final shape of the police reforms may have to wait until next summer. That's when US District Court Judge Michael Simon, citing an impasse over reforms with the Portland Police Association, has suggested he'd set a bench trial on the settlement agreement at the earliest.

Also, just before the vote on the police bureau unveiled a new tab on its website aimed at tracking accountability-related meetings and its progress on making changes.

There was some modest pushback, however, on Fritz's timeline. Commissioner Dan Saltzman—who said he had an unidentified nominee in mind for six months (don't worry; it's not me)—repeatedly asked if a compliance officer might be hired within weeks, maybe by mid-September. Fritz told him that wouldn't be possible if a thorough national search were to happen with the public helping vet whomever the council appoints.

Saltzman, who might be trying to shore up his police accountability cred in advance of a re-election run, thundered back: "It seems like we're not moving as fast as we should."

Fritz was backed up by Jo Ann Hardesty, a former state legislator and member of the AMA's steering coalition. Hardesty said that although the position is "key" for proving that the police bureau really has begun making the changes it says it's begun making, even without a court-approved agreement, the right person must be chosen.

"I appreciate taking the time to get someone who can't just work with police but has expertise working with community members as well," she said. "You can't get that person in a couple of weeks. You've got to spend some time."

But Hardesty and others working with the AMA, though they testified in support of the agreement and heaped praise on Hales, his staff, and Fritz—with several people calling it a "milestone" and/or "watershed" moment in relations—also came with a list of quibbles and concerns.

They said the amended agreement still doesn't get rid of the city's so-called "48-hour rule," a window enshrined in the PPA's contract that lets cops put off, citing reasons of due process and accuracy, having to testify to investigators on use of force incidents.

Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, also on the AMA's steering committee, said it also allows PPA contract talks to happen in private and that it doesn't guarantee that advisory groups on new police initiatives, like the bureau's Behavioral Health Unit, meet and make decisions in public.

"We can still find a way to involve the public and do as much of this stuff with public discussion," he said, "instead of having things develop and then have them annonced to the community."

Hardesty said the lack of a compliance officer and community oversight board on reforms, which the AMA will now get to help with under the new agreement, is among the most important holes yet to be fixed.

"We don't have the community oversight mechanism in place to ensure that what we're being told has been fixed has truly been fixed," she said.

Police Chief Mike Reese, as you'd expect, defended the work his bureau has already done, ticking off reforms that include changing force and Taser policies and requiring supervisors to show up when force is used. He also brought up East Precinct Commander Sara Westbrook, who helped start the BHU, to list off the members of the BHU advisory committee in a bid to reassure advocates that it wasn't stacked with cops and city employees.

"I wanted you to know it wasn't some small group," she says. "We have some folks together who have opinions."

American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon lobbyist Becky Straus testified that while she still hoped federal reform would have drastically reshaped Portland's citizen oversight system, giving it new power instead of "tinkering around the edges," she made a point to give the city a hand for taking steps toward transparency.

"Possibly with the exception of the police union," she said. "Everyone in Portland is ready to see the show get on the road."

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