Harrington discusses upcoming listening sessions, possible reform
As protests against police brutality continue in Portland and in many Washington County communities, Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington says she's eagerly waiting to hear more about what people think the county should do to promote racial justice.
The Board of Commissioners is preparing for a series of community listening sessions at the end of August that it will use to "guide future plans related to services, investment priorities and policy direction that are equitable to all residents," the county said in announcing sessions July 30.
But people advocating for reforms at the Washington County Sheriff's Office and within county government as a whole haven't been waiting for the listening sessions to demand change. Harrington, who in recent weeks has participated in several conversations with advocates, said the listening sessions will give the full board more information about how to initiate change.
"George Floyd's death tipped the scales in a lot of ways. It galvanized a lot of people to recognize where we are," Harrington said. "We've had over 400 years of Black oppression. We've seen our community say we have to do a better job. We on the board are on that journey as well."
Two of the scheduled 90-minute listening sessions are geared toward the entire community. Four others are designated for specific groups, including Latinos, LGBTQ residents, the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community, and people with disabilities.
While the listening sessions will likely be wide-ranging, the board scheduled the sessions after receiving mixed messages about a specific potential policy change, Harrington said.
In June, Harrington proposed an amendment to the previously approved 2020-21 budget to include funding for all patrol deputies to wear body cameras. The Sheriff's Office started phasing in body-worn cameras four years ago, but currently, only 16% of patrol deputies use them, Harrington said.
The policy was tabled after Harrington had discussions with two cultural groups who expressed conflicting opinions about whether funds should be directed to equip every deputy with a body camera.
The debate about whether body cameras produce positive policing outcomes is ongoing. Some research shows body-worn cameras have no impact on police use of force or citizen complaints, but advocates say the purpose of body-worn cameras is broader, providing recourse for people after harmful police interactions.
"It was a big red flag for me," Harrington said, referring to mixed messages from different groups. "I need to do a better job here of engaging with the community."
Harrington was present for a press call July 28 with a newly formed coalition of Black-led organizations and advocates for racial justice called "Reimagine Oregon." During the call, advocates unveiled sweeping policy demands for state and local government entities, including Washington County.
Defunding the Washington County Sheriff's Office was among the demands listed on Reimagine Oregon's website.
"It's not that I'm against taking a fine-tooth comb really looking at the sheriff's department, because we already have the ability to do that. Rather, I think it's incumbent upon us as the board members to look at our investment strategies for how we use our general fund resources to make sure we're meeting the needs of our 21st-century community," Harrington said.
Harrington said that work is ongoing. She pointed to the county's decision to hire a chief equity and inclusion officer after it adopted an equity resolution in February.
Although Harrington said examining all budget items is appropriate, reallocating funds away from the Sheriff's Office to social services — one of the top demands for reform advocates — isn't a simple procedure, Harrington said. She added that the county runs on a "very lean" general fund.
She also pointed to voters' decision to renew a five-year public safety levy this May as evidence that Washington County residents value the work of the Sheriff's Office. The levy passed with 55% of the vote.
The county is committed to better involving the community in its budgetary processes, and work has already taken place to do so, she said. The county recently launched an interactive website in which people can more easily navigate the county's budget, the summary of which is nearly 400 pages.
Harrington said it might be time to re-examine how the county uses some of its discretionary funds, such as revenue from state Gain Share funds allocated to governments participating in the state's "Strategic Investments Program."
"Prior boards have said, 'That's one-time money, and we should be only using those funds for one-time investments like building a new building,'" Harrington said. "Well, maybe we need to revisit that and say, 'Look, because of the level of mental health services needed in our community, behavioral health, addiction reduction services that we need, maybe we need to take those dollars and put them into multi-year programs in order to make sure we are raising up our community members.'"
Harrington said her conversations with Sheriff Pat Garrett indicate he wants to make sure Sheriff's Office policies and practices are equitable. She said she looks forward to seeing the results of a use-of-force policy review Garrett plans to commission.
Sgt. Danny DiPietro, spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office, said the review is in its early stages and an outside entity has not yet been selected to conduct the review.
The Sheriff's Office committed to the review after criminal charges were filed against Deputy Rian Alden, a jail officer who severely injured a man who was being booked into the jail in 2018 for riding his bike while drunk. A video of the incident shows the attack was unprovoked.
The Washington County District Attorney's Office initiated a new review of the incident after a 2003 email allegedly written by Alden, prior to his employment with the Sheriff's Office, surfaced in which he used several racial epithets and described himself as a racist.
Alden has been charged with second-degree assault and unlawful use of a deadly weapon. He posted bail at the Columbia County Jail on July 27 and remains on paid administrative leave.
When asked about the case, Harrington declined to comment, referring to the board's previous statements issued after settling a civil suit with Albert Molina, the victim of the attack. Announcing that settlement, county officials formally apologized for Molina's ordeal.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the status of the county's 2020-21 budget at the time of Harrington's body camera proposal.
It has also been edited to clarify that the body camera proposal was for patrol deputies only.
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