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UPDATE: City Council members promise to support POC Caucus bills at Thursday work session

[Editor's note: The City Council promised to support the bills sponsored by the People of Color Caucus during a joint work session Thursday morning. In addition to the three bills that could first be considered this year during a special session of the Oregon Legislature, many other issues were raised during the wide-ranging discussion, from reforming the state's training system for new law police officers to requiring them to live in their communities. The session was chaired by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty because Mayor Ted Wheeler was not yet back at work following the Tuesday death of his mother. You can find a video of the work session here.]

FILE PHOTO - Oregon Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, speaks with students at the Multnomah Education Service District in Portland in 2018.The nine minority-group members of the Oregon Legislature will promote bills to tighten the accountability of police after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests in Portland and other cities.

The People of Color Caucus, which numbers two senators and seven representatives among the 90 legislators, seek two bills during an anticipated special session of the Legislature later this year and another measure for the 2021 session.

"I am pleased to see allies from all colors now stepping forward to do something about this," Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said at a news conference last week. "It is time. We have had enough. I want to see some action and I hope we will."

One measure is a new version of Frederick's Senate Bill 1567, which cleared the Senate unanimously, but died in the House without a vote after the 2020 session ended abruptly on March 5. A similar measure he sponsored (Senate Bill 383) also passed the Senate in 2019 but died in a House committee.

Under the bill, if an arbitrator concludes there was police misconduct, the arbitrator cannot lessen any disciplinary action taken by the police agency against the officer based on that misconduct.

The other bills may face a tougher legislative road.

One measure would require the Oregon Department of Justice, led by the elected attorney general, to investigate deaths or serious physical injuries when police use deadly force. Those investigations are now conducted by police — though not the agencies employing the officers involved in the use of force — and district attorneys in Oregon's 36 counties.

The other measure would direct the House Judiciary Committee to convene a bipartisan work group to look at Oregon's law governing police use of deadly force when making an arrest or preventing an escape. The measure is intended to prompt recommendations for change in the 2021 session. The basic law goes back to 1971, and in 2007, the Legislature required use-of-force plans on a county-by-county basis.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said in a statement:

"Oregon has an opportunity to address abuses that have gone on for far too long. We must rise to the challenge of this moment and make real change to create a safe and supportive community for all Oregonians." 

Democrat Rob Wagner of Lake Oswego, the new Senate majority leader, pledged his support for the measures. He said in a statement on his Facebook page:

"As elected leaders, we have the power to change the ways our laws uphold institutional racism and systems of oppression, and we cannot wait any longer to take action. The People of Color Caucus (members) … have put forth policy proposals to improve police accountability and act against injustice. I am eager to work with my colleagues to advance these important policies. We must act now."

Caucus of nine

In addition to Frederick, the caucus members are Sen. James Manning of Eugene and Reps. Teresa Alonso León of Woodburn, Janelle Bynum of Clackamas, Diego Hernandez of Portland, Akasha Lawrence Spence of Portland, Mark Meek of Oregon City, Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego and Tawna Sanchez of Portland. All are Democrats. Lawrence Spence isn't seeking election, but the caucus is likely to add to its ranks Nov. 3.

"I look forward to supporting the POC Caucus as they fashion their proposals into effective legislation," Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a statement last week.

"We must dismantle racism. Doing so requires looking at our systems from every angle. Dismantling racism demands thoroughly listening to those voices and issues that make us uncomfortable. Dismantling racism mandates acknowledging that the answers haven't been found, the solutions haven't been enacted, that many promises have turned up empty."

In 2015, the Legislature barred police use of profiling, a practice of identifying criminal suspects based on broad personal characteristics such as race.

In 2017, at Rosenblum's urging, another law required agencies to collect information on traffic and pedestrian stops by police.

The first phase involved reports by Oregon's 12 largest agencies, including the Oregon State Police, sheriff's offices in the three metro-area counties and police in Portland, Gresham, Hillsboro and Beaverton. Their data was released last year by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, which eventually will collect information from all Oregon police agencies to see if there are patterns where police are stopping minorities disproportionately.

Past and present

During the news conference last week with Gov. Kate Brown, Frederick referred to past incidents when police have stopped him as he was going to and from his home in Portland's Irvington neighborhood, where he has lived since 1977.

He recounted one incident in the early 1990s, when he was a reporter for Portland television station KGW and his station car was stopped in King City with his photographer at the wheel. "He suddenly saw the barrel of a gun right across his face, pointed at me," Frederick said. (The mayor of King City since 2016 is Ken Gibson, who is black.)

Brown said in the aftermath of Floyd's death — caused when a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes — that Oregon's elected leaders must do more to address these issues.

She said:

"To everyone who is hurting right now, I want to say I see you. I hear you. I stand with you. And I add my voice to yours.

"Years and years of failure to reform police practices. Years of failure to hold police officers accountable. Years of failure to bring real reforms to our criminal justice system, which

incarcerates Black Americans at five times the rate of white Americans.

"I count myself as one of the many white politicians whose good intentions haven't done enough to tackle the scourge of systemic racism."

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