Police accountability bills head to votes in Oregon Legislature
Some police advocates and critics were dissatisfied, but a joint committee of the Oregon Legislature reached a consensus on half a dozen bills aimed at improving police practices and accountability.
Votes are scheduled Friday, June 26, in the House and Senate on the package, which was one of the main goals of the special session called by Gov. Kate Brown.
The bills restrict but do not ban police use of chokeholds on suspects and tear gas on crowds.
Instead of transferring investigations of officer-involved shootings from county district attorneys to the state attorney general, a bill sets up a legislative committee to look at police use of force — the state law dates back to 1971 — citizen complaints and independent review processes.
But for Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat from Portland who has been working on such issues during his entire legislative tenure, the bills represent real progress.
"I am overwhelmed by the response and support and the approach we have seen in this room," he said Thursday night as the joint committee finished its work. "For me, having worked on some of these bills for the past 11 years, it is really extraordinary."
Frederick, an African American who has faced random traffic stops by police, said he had a message for skeptics: "We can make a change and you are showing it."
Rep. Rick Lewis is a Republican from Silverton, where he has been mayor and police chief, and is also a former chair of the state Public Safety Standards and Training Board.
"I can tell you that these conversations never stop in circles of law enforcement administration," he said when the committee finished.
"I think it is important we can remember and acknowledge that the vast majority of police officers are good. They are men and women of integrity, and their heart is in serving their communities to the very best of their abilities…. Their world is one of the very few professions where they face ridicule and criticism when the few bad cops, no matter which part of the country they might come from, bring discredit upon the profession as a whole."
Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Democrat from Clackamas who leads the House Judiciary Committee, said she welcomed Lewis' help in shaping the package.
"It is important not to pick on people, but to dismantle the system that is generating outcomes that none of us is happy with," Bynum said. The Black lawmaker was the focus of an incident in 2018, when she was canvassing her district and someone called the Clackamas County sheriff on her.
Rep. Ron Noble, a Republican from McMinnville and a former police chief, said earlier in the day: "I do believe that all of these bills will be a first step in the right direction."
The package also got an endorsement from the Portland City Council in a statement signed by Mayor Ted Wheeler and three commissioners.
Summary of bills
Here's a summary of the police accountability bills as amended in committee, after about an hour of testimony Thursday and some on Tuesday, before the session started:
• Arbitration: Senate Bill 1604 bars a labor arbitrator from lessening the discipline against a police officer if the arbitrator concludes that misconduct is consistent with the finding of the agency that employed the officer. This bill passed the Senate in 2019 and 2020, but died without a vote in the House.
• Deadly force investigations: House Bill 4201, as amended, creates a joint legislative committee to review how complaints about police use of force are investigated, how investigations into use of deadly force are conducted, and how independent reviews of police use of force should be done. The amendment substitutes for the original bill, which would have transferred responsibility for use-of-force investigations from district attorneys in Oregon's 36 counties to the state attorney general.
• Chokeholds: House Bill 4203, as amended, bans chokeholds or similar techniques unless an officer is faced with using deadly force as defined by a 1971 law. The original bill would have banned such techniques outright.
• Officer duty to intervene and report: House Bill 4205, as amended, requires officers to intervene when they witness misconduct, which includes "unjustified or excessive force," unless they cannot do it safely — and to report such misconduct to a supervisor. The original bill would have required a state agency to adopt such rules.
• Database: House Bill 4207 directs the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to create a statewide database of disciplinary records of officers, and certifications, suspensions and revocations.
• Use of tear gas: House Bill 4208, as amended, restricts police from using tear gas except to quell a riot. It also requires police to announce the use of tear gas, allow time for the crowd to disperse, and repeat the announcement before its use. The original bill would have banned the use of tear gas outright.
The changes satisfied Michael Salvaggio, a lobbyist for the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs (ORCOPS). Its president is Daryl Turner, the president of the Portland Police Association, which represents Portland officers. Earlier this week Salvaggio said the group would oppose all the bills without changes.
"Thank you for the amendments that have addressed our concerns," he said. "I want to stress that we understand the work is not over. We hope to continue working with stakeholders and committees on other issues."
But Dan Thenell, a lawyer who represents the Oregon Fraternal Order of Police, said he felt his group got the brush-off.
"I am concerned about the lack of response to our willingness" to talk, he said. "It makes me wonder if we are doing the right thing by rushing through."
Police critics also had critical words about the bills.
Jason Kafoury, a Portland lawyer who has represented people accusing police of misconduct, said chokeholds should have been banned outright; medical and mental health conditions of colleagues should have been added to the list of reportable items by police; and the proposed database for police discipline cases may be too limited.
"If someone has 10 unsubstantiated claims of excessive force … they will never be part of that database," he said.
R.P. "Joe" Smith, a former Umatilla County district attorney and a former state representative from Portland, said he was disappointed there was no outright transfer of responsibility for deadly force investigations to the attorney general. (He was a candidate for that office in 1980.)
"There is an inherent conflict of interest for district attorneys to prosecute police misconduct," he said, mainly because of the close relationship between them and police agencies.
But Aaron Knott, legislative director for the Oregon Department of Justice, said the agency does not have the staffing or the proximity to take on that task. District attorneys usually have someone quickly on the scene of an officer-involved shooting.
"If you are trying to appease the protesters, this isn't going to do it," Nicole Robinson of Corvallis said.
But Itzel Chavez, development coordinator for Centro Cultural de Washington County, supported the package: "We need a culture of police accountability."
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