This Week in the Mercury


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Council Approves Police Reforms—Tries to Assuage Critics by Promising More Reforms Later

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Jan 8, 2014 at 4:42 PM

It only took more than a year of planning, three decreasingly contentious public hearings, and a handful of 11th-hour changes before the holiday break.

Portland City Council this afternoon handed the city's Independent Police Review Division a long-awaited victory—voting 4-0 on a package of code reforms meant to shine more light on the police bureau's famously opaque discipline process, speed up investigations, and give civilian investigators, for the first time, the explicit right to interview all police employees when looking into misconduct cases.

The vote, with Commissioner Amanda Fritz absent, moves forward a key piece of the city's police reform settlement with the US Department of Justice, which rapped Portland's current system as "byzantine" and "self-defeating." But it also came despite continued criticism on very different two fronts.

Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, repeated his disappointment that he wasn't consulted more deeply about changes he thinks will usurp police authority. (He threatened last month to file a labor complaint about it.) And advocates for police accountability kept up their call to go even further with reforms and delay changes until a federal judge takes up the settlement agreement with the feds at a community "fairness" hearing on February 18.

Those concerns, especially from advocates, weren't unexpected when I wrote this week's Hall Monitor on the vote. And Mayor Charlie Hales and city commissioners had a ready answer for them during today's short hearing: This vote, they said, won't be the end of changes to the city's police oversight system.

Advocates' wish list includes giving more time to a civilian panel charged with hearing misconduct appeals; the feds' have called for just a 21-day window that current members of the Citizen Review Commission call unworkable. (Steve Novick today also called it "ridiculous.") It also includes an independent civilian discipline panel, extending civilian oversight to police shootings, and the end of a 48-hour window protecting cops in force cases from giving statements.

"This is clearly not the last time we'll be taking these issues up," said Commissioner Nick Fish, first to vote yes. "There are more reforms to come. But their is a sense of urgency in moving these reforms forward."

Hales, speaking last, said as much in his remarks.

"It's perfectly reasonable that this council should revisit an important function of this city to see how it's working and adjust it over time," he said. "The buck stops with us. I don't want to give anyone the impression that by waiting for the fairness hearing, we're ceding to the federal government. If we have to do this again sometime soon because part of this doesn't work out, we'll be ready."

Why do these reforms matter? If the code changes had been approved last fall, today's batch of Police Review Board reports would have been a whole lot more meaningful. From now on, those reports will have to include final discipline given to officers in misconduct cases. Not just what the board recommends. Sometimes Police Chief Mike Reese doesn't fire cops the PRB thinks should be fired.

Reese will also now have to write an explanation whenever his discipline veers from a range spelled out in a new discipline matrix the police bureau is almost ready to adopt.

"It's important we have those conversations, but we can't stop the important work we do," said IPR Director Constantin Severe, touching on the transparency and investigative reforms approved this afternoon. "Today, an independent investigation won't be as strong as the independent investigation that will come under this proposed code."

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