Citizen voices rise during Lake Oswego council meeting on racism, police reform
This story has been updated from its original version.
The City Council chambers may have been vacant yesterday evening, but the meeting was not void of voices — virtually, the room was packed.
More than 60 community members signed up to have their voices heard during public comment at the June 16 City Council meeting. Citizens expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, while also pressing for reform in the schools and the police department, and the evaluation of police policies.
"I hope Mr. Mayor that you're going to leave us a legacy of change in the police forces," citizen and City Council candidate Massene Mboup said during his testimony.
People echoed each other in support of two agenda items the council voted on last night: the implementation of the recommendations from the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force on board and commission recruitment and retention, as well as expanding the DEI Task Force's scope of work to include recommendations about eliminating disparities in city services — like policing — with a report due at the end of this year.
Several community members also expressed the need for equity audits of the Lake Oswego Police Department, with a culturally relevant and police-knowledgeable consultant being brought on to address accountability.
The City Council unanimously approved the recommendations on recruitment and retention, save for one recommendation that childcare or a stipend for care be provided to members of the boards and commissions. Council said the details had not been fully formed and discussed enough to vote on childcare services yet.
Board and commission recommendations that were approved by the council included bias awareness training for members on the interview team, the inclusion of a DEI Task Force member as part of the 2020 boards and commissions interview team and a deadline extension to recruit applicants if the applicant pool results in "decreased or unchanged diversity of current boards and commissions," according to a staff report.
The council also approved the expansion of the scope of work by the DEI Task Force, though Councilor John Wendland reluctantly voted yes and Councilor John LaMotte voted no.
Under this new scope of work, the DEI Task Force would have conversations with focus groups to discuss residents' experiences with the LOPD, while also extending the conversation to include other city services.
LaMotte said he voted no because he wanted more council involvement in the focus groups.
"For me, it is time to get the City Council out in public and talking to folks about what's going on, not only about COVID-19 but with the national crisis regarding racism and race relations," LaMotte said. "I felt strongly we should be doing more outreach to citizens and that we should be out there directly with the citizens."
He said he'd rather listen to people upfront and talk about the issues directly, as opposed to receiving filtered information or feedback given to the council at a later date.
Wendland said he is in full support of moving forward with the DEI Task Force concepts and direction.
"But we need to do it right and have public engagement, transparency, and accountability in the process which is what is missing in the policy we passed," Wendland told the Review in an email. "We owe that to the people of Lake Oswego to have engaged discussion and dialogue. And after listening to the 65 people testifying, many wanted stronger city leadership in this issue. And I agree."
Others felt if councilors were involved and the focus group meetings were public, people wouldn't feel as safe sharing their stories.
Councilor Theresa Kohlhoff, who is also the council laison to the task force, said she thinks the council — which already has a prominent voice — would be counterproductive if active in any other role than listening at this point. She said the members of the DEI Task Force represent the group of voices that have not been heard and need to be heard now.
"They need to be the ones to articulate their own experiences in their own ways. The plan is (and always was) to have the members reach out to others in their networks who might be willing to share what they know," Kohlhoff told the Review in an email. "In particular this sharing — so valuable and unattainable otherwise but so triggering — must happen in a confidential place or it will not likely take place at all ... What is revealed and learned in this safe space can then come back to the council and the public for use in proposing applicable reforms. Here is where the council is motivated to, has the capacity for and absolutely must lead."
The votes came on the heels of more than two hours of public testimony, during which citizens — some white and some identifying as people of color — shared an array of perspectives and experiences regarding police conduct.
Mboup encouraged the council and the public to consider the measures Sen. Jeff Merkley is proposing for national reform of police departments.
"Prohibit police use of chokeholds and other physical tactics that restrict oxygen or blood flow, require a mechanism for civilian oversight and review of local police departments' policies and actions, and (prohibit) the use of no-knock warrants such as the one that led to the horrific death of Breonna Taylor," Mboup said.
Citizens shared stories they've heard from others who have had negative encounters with the police, while others spoke out about their own encounters with the police and their lived experiences.
Some community members also pushed for the removal of school resource officers and for police funds to be diverted to social services and other experts, who would then deal with issues like mental health that are currently handled primarily by police.
Police Chief Dale Jorgensen said LOPD has a model where the department is already allocating funds to areas of social service and mental health.
Some of the police budget is allocated to an adult resource officer who focuses on mental and behavioral health, substance abuse, and services for aging adults, among many other areas. Other funds are paying for a juvenile diversion program to keep youth away from formal processing in the juvenile justice system.
During her testimony, Oregon House Rep. Andrea Salinas said that since the murder of George Floyd, she and her collegues in the Legislature's People of Color Caucus have been developing policy proposals, and recently announced the first initial actions in the upcoming emergency legislative session to improve police accountability.
The three reform measures Salinas mentioned were a focus on police arbitration (the process that follows after an officer is disciplined), independent investigation into use of force by law enforcement officers and the formation of bipartisan workgroups to recommend further changes on the use of physical force.
Also during the Tuesday meeting, LOPD Chief Dale Jorgensen discussed the department's policing practices and how they relate to the use of force and the 8 Can't Wait campaign — a project by Campaign Zero dedicated to creating change in police departments and reducing harm. (To view LOPD's response to each of the eight topics, click here).
Jorgensen expressed the importance of fostering trust within the community and how it's a continuous process. He said it's one of the reasons LOPD places an importance on training in areas of law, as well as physical, technical, cognitive and behavioral skills.
"It's why we examine issues of implicit bias and engage in partnerships like Respond to Racism and Word is Bond (a Portland organization that works to improve the relationship between police and Black men)," Jorgensen said. "It is why we actively participate in events like You and Blue, Building Bridges of Understanding, the Multi-City Equity Summit … and the Museum of Tolerance."
Jorgensen went into detail about the hiring screening process, background checks and the importance of continued training after an officer is hired.
"If we don't have the right people through hiring, we have fallen short, and policy and procedures will fall by the wayside," Jorgensen said.
LaMotte asked what would happen if an officer was great in the beginning of their career, but later started exhibiting mental health issues that could make them a threat as an armed officer in the community.
Jorgensen said the state mandated all police departments to have a wellness program that includes physical, spiritual and mental health components.
"We have a fitness for duty avenue that we can send an officer through," Jorgensen told the Review. The fit for duty evaluation could also send an officer to a mental health professional.
Mayor Kent Studebaker said that after hearing people of color share stories about being stopped in their car without reason, he wondered how the LOPD could stop that from happening.
Jorgensen said he encourages people to file a complaint through the police department or through the Criminal Justice Commission's online form.
"We don't want that, that's not part of our culture," said Jorgensen, adding that the department investigates every complaint. When a complaint is filed with CJC, the LOPD has to report the findings back to CJC. The LOPD also has its own complaint tracking program for citizen complaints.
"That's how we can start to build that trust, is when they let us know when these things happen," he said.
Councilor Daniel Nguyen asked if Jorgensen empowers officers to step in and act as good samaritans if they witness a situation with another officer where they feel they should intervene.
"Not only do they have the authority, they have the duty to," said Jorgensen, adding that whenever an officer witnesses another officer use force excessively, they have a duty to stop the force and intercede.
A hot button issue across the nation concerns the banning or restriction of chokeholds.
Jorgensen said that the LOPD doesn't teach this use of force technique, doesn't use it and that it's not a part of policy, except in deadly use of force situations.
Jorgensen also talked about the use of school resource officers, as some in the community have advocated for the elimination of police presence in schools. Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero recently announced he was discontinuing the district's use of school resource officers.
Jorgensen said that having officers in the schools is a big part of community policing and allows young people to have positive interactions with a police officer.
"You absolutely can't discount anybody's lived experiences. There's obviously work to be done in our community to make sure that those experiences are positive," Jorgensen said in an interview with the Review. "Our school resource officers, they go to some school resource officer specific training at least once a year and usually multiple times during the year.
"I think part of that too comes with building some relationships and perhaps ... as a police department, we need to look into different ways that our school resource officers could interact with the schools."
Councilor John Wendland said he was impressed with the high school protest that was organized at Millennium Plaza Park earlier this month and added that Jorgensen and the LOPD have been called upon to do a deep-seated soul search. He asked Jorgensen if he felt like he could do that with the LOPD.
Jorgensen said yes — that LOPD employees want to work in an organization that values what was discussed at this meeting and will go along with recommendations from the council.
"With all this said, I can't help but think that some have made some assumptions about our department — the dedicated women and men of our department and how we engage in community policing," said Jorgensen, adding that it's understandable on a national level why people feel that way and he's glad Lake Oswego is having this dialogue. "I think it's important that as a community we listen and as a police department we listen."
For more information on the council meeting and to watch the meeting video, visit the Lake Oswego City Council's website.
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