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Portland’s system of police oversight seems poised to move away from the public meetings that have been its staple for more than 30 years.


In an effort to streamline a system that federal Justice Department lawyers have characterized as byzantine, city officials including Portland’s elected auditor, Mary Hull Caballero, are considering scrapping the aspect of the city’s system that allows a citizen review committee to publicly hear appeals of bureau disciplinary decisions concerning alleged officer misconduct.

Hull Caballero, who's been charged with implementing the City Council's direction, says the city’s 2012 settlement of a federal Department of Justice lawsuit leaves officials little choice. That’s because of how long the committee and the city’s Independent Police Review office has taken to process appeals of officer discipline.

Appeals, Hull Caballero says, “are taking 149 days to get through. They have to be done in 21 days. So we’re not even within striking distance of meeting the requirement in the agreement.”

Hull Caballero says she wants to make sure the city preserves transparency and civilian influence in the proposed system. For instance, she says the change should be counterbalanced by increasing the number of civilians that sit on the internal Portland Police Bureau review board that hears cases in secret and recommends discipline to the city’s police chief. She says the non-police members should constitute a majority of the disciplinary board.

Hull Caballero says the one time she saw the police board in action, “I was thoroughly impressed.” But she does want to make sure civilian members still have the opportunity to publicly question any perceived malfeasance by the board, much the way the city’s Independent Police Review Director Constantin Severe did earlier this summer when he accused a police manager of trying to block discipline for a drug cop who’d grabbed the camera of an activist filming him.

One of the unresolved questions is whether the City Council would still have final say on police discipline if appealed to a public hearing, the way it works under the current system. The city’s push to remove the citizen committee’s appeals role could in effect give back the final say to the police chief, as overseen by the elected commissioner assigned to the police bureau.

City officials are pushing the changes quickly after a series of closed-door meetings, but the changes would have to be approved by the City Council in public. Their goal is to get the changes in place in advance of an October hearing with the federal judge overseeing the case. The goal is to assure the judge that progress is being made, that the city is making a good faith effort to comply with the settlement, and that there’s no need to appoint a beefed-up. independent police monitor with authority to mandate changes at the Portland Police Bureau

However, Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, who has been attending meetings of the city’s police oversight arm since the 1980s, says the move to end the public hearings of citizen appeals runs counter to the original intent of the city’s civilian oversight arm, which was to provide citizens with a public “window” in an extremely secret process.

He also said that the delays cited by Hull Caballero stem from problems at the Portland Police Bureau and delays by city officials, and not from the work of the citizen’s committee. “This idea is not a solution to the problem,” he says.

Interestingly, the city’s effort to avoid oversight by a monitor is occurring even as some members of a separate police oversight committee have voted to recommend a court-appointed monitor, saying the Chicago-based consultants currently shepherding the agreement aren’t up to snuff.

That decision by Portland’s Community Oversight Advisory Board, which was set up to work with the consulting firm that was appointed to work with the police bureau rather than a full police monitor, came after the consulting firm issued a July 11 petition seeking to withdraw from working with the COAB. The petition cited misconceptions on the part of the advisory board’s members and a lack of progress.

Previously the consultants had proposed making the COAB’s meetings closed to the public to avoid disruptions by a small group of activists who frequently attend local public meetings.

Tom Steenson, the criminal defense lawyer and board member who proposed replacing the consultants with a full-blown police monitor, says he’s looked at the monitor’s work in Seattle and it appears to have been far more effective. “I’ve not had conversations with the people up there, but I’ve just looked at the track record,” he says. “I just think it’s a better way to go.”

One of the big questions is how the Portland Police Association will react, since the officers’ union has long maintained that any changes in police discipline must be agreed upon in contract negotiations. PPA President Daryl Turner said the union currently is observing to see what will emerge from the two proposals.

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