Legislative session focuses on police conduct, pandemic after-effects
Two days of proposed legislation and public testimony have led up to a special session of the Oregon Legislature, which is set to open Wednesday, June 24, to consider police accountability and pandemic after-effects.
Senate President Peter Courtney, the Legislature's longest serving member, says the session's circumstances are unique compared with the 21 previous special sessions he has taken part in dating to 1981.
They are tied to the nationwide protests of police conduct after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as the statewide shutdowns of business activity and public life after Gov. Kate Brown's March 8 declaration of emergency in the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
"We have to come to the Capitol to do this session. That's the way it is. We are in a very difficult situation," the Salem Democrat said. "I don't think there has been, or is ever going to be, a special session quite like this one."
Legislators have been advised that the session is likely to run more than one day, and that special measures have been taken to ensure social distancing among members. The Capitol will be closed to the public, but people can watch the proceedings via the legislative website or at a special viewing station outside the Capitol.
"Although the Constitution does not allow me to limit the length of the special session or the issues considered, I ask that the members of the (Legislative) Assembly act expeditiously in enacting legislators to the matters referenced above," Brown said in her official call for the special session.
Brown is likely to call a second special session later this summer to deal with potential spending cuts and federal aid, although legislative budget subcommittees have not yet started public hearings.
Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, led a 14-member special session committee that considered written and oral testimony on six bills dealing with police accountability; an omnibus bill covering after-effects of the pandemic; and other issues. Counting nearly a dozen items in the omnibus bill, almost 30 items will be on the table.
The police accountability bills, which the committee heard Tuesday, would:
• Bar arbitrators in labor disputes from overturning discipline against a police officer if the employing agency found there was misconduct on the officer's part, and the arbitrator also concludes there was misconduct. (Similar bills passed the Senate in 2019 and 2020, but have never reached a vote in the House.)
• Set up a statewide database of disciplined officers.
• Designate the Oregon Department of Justice, instead of district attorneys, to investigate police when use of force results in death or serious injuries.
• Require police to intervene to stop officer misconduct that violates laws, rules or policies, and to report misconduct.
• Ban police use of chokeholds.
• Restrict use of tear gas and other methods of crowd control.
The first bill won an endorsement from the West Linn City Council, which is wrestling with the fallout from the false arrest of a Black man from Portland at the behest of a friend of the former West Linn police chief. Michael Fesser won a $600,000 lawsuit against West Linn Police in February. The current chief and a detective are on paid administrative leave pending investigations by federal and state agencies and district attorneys in two counties.
Mayor Russ Axelrod and four council members said in their letter: "We are taking a variety of actions in West Linn to rebuild community trust … but we also need a strong framework of state laws to help us address the many changes needed in law enforcement practices."
Among the legislative committee members are three from the People of Color Caucus: Sen. Lew Frederick of Portland, Rep. Janelle Bynum of Clackamas and Rep. Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego, all Democrats. Also on the committee is Rep. Rick Lewis, a Republican from Silverton and a former mayor and police chief.
A separate omnibus bill combines elements of executive orders Brown issued during the coronavirus pandemic, although two of its provisions could become bills by themselves.
One piece would continue a moratorium she proclaimed on residential and commercial evictions during the pandemic. Her latest order ends June 30 unless it is renewed. The legislation would extend the moratorium on evictions until 90 days after the governor ends the state of emergency that led her to issue the original order.
The legislation bars landlords from charging late fees to tenants, but tenants must still pay rent owed.
Another piece would restrict foreclosure proceedings during the emergency.
Another provision, which is embedded in the omnibus bill, would bar garnishments from federal stimulus checks of $1,200 per person or $2,400 per couple filing jointly that were made under the CARES Act.
Other provisions in the omnibus bill would allow the courts to reset dates for proceedings and governments to approve sites for temporary shelters.
See an outline of legislation proposed for the special session starting June 24. Bill numbers will be assigned on Wednesday.
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