Oregon lawmakers ponder split opinions on police practices
Lawmakers pondered a chasm of opinions as they consider bills for the 2021 session about how police practices should be changed in Oregon.
Emory Mort of Portland's Resistance says he favors a proposed ban on police use of tear gas. Lawmakers imposed a curb on its use during their June special session, but the new law still lets it be used after police announce two warnings and allow time for people to leave the area.
Mort said he experienced tear gassing for seven straight nights during protests at the federal courthouse and Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland.
"I just want to be clear that at no point did I commit a crime or was even standing on federal property," Mort said at a virtual meeting of the joint legislative committee. "Most of the time I was there talking with people standing and watching. I knew it was important to be there. I was posing no threat to any officer. It is just outrageous."
The proposed ban would apply to state and local agencies, but not federal agents on federal property.
Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, also a former Portland police chief, argued against proposed restrictions that he said may make things worse. In addition to a ban on tear gas, legislation would bar police use of sound devices louder than 105 decibels — the level of a whirring helicopter or a rock concert — and limit police use of rubber bullets to people with probable cause to commit a crime.
"As police officers and law enforcement professionals, we need as many options as possible for de-escalation and to use the least-force options available when we have to use force to maintain public order and safety of people at these events," he said. "I believe that removing these options for people engaged in illegal or violent actions may actually result in direct physical conflict between those individuals and police officers or deputy sheriffs trying to keep the peace."
Bills in progress
The Legislature's special session created a joint committee to review police use of force, identification and disciplinary procedures and submit recommendations for the 2021 session, which begins Jan. 11.
Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett said proposed standards of identification for police uniforms and vehicles went too far.
Most sheriff's deputies in Oregon's 36 counties wear brown or khaki, separating them from city and Oregon State Police with their blue uniforms. Garrett said his point was not about the color of uniforms, but that plainclothes officers — separate from the undercover, tactical and emergency response teams exempt from the proposed requirement — do have value in specific situations, such as interviewing crime victims.
"We should not be heading in the direction of one-uniform-fits-all for the state," Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat from Eugene and a member of the committee, said. He also said such a requirement for local agencies is likely to cost the state, which must pay for mandates.
Garrett also said that unmarked cars should be allowed for more than just undercover operations.
"Unmarked vehicles used for traffic enforcement are an effective countermeasure to detect and arrest impaired drivers," he said.
Special-session legislation requires the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, which trains and licenses police and other public safety officers, to set up a database for disciplinary records. Proposed bills would set up a statewide commission to establish discipline procedures — they would no longer be a subject of collective bargaining between local governments and police unions — and to be more specific about information included for public disclosure.
Glenda Golter was among a group of West Linn residents who brought up a 2017 lawsuit by Michael Fesser. He sued the city over a false arrest and investigation by West Linn police involving the police chief and Fesser's employer in Portland, a fishing buddy. The city settled the lawsuit in February and the matter triggered several other investigations.
One of them, by the Clackamas County district attorney, concluded there was misconduct by the former police chief and a sergeant who was the lead detective. The city subsequently fired the sergeant.
"It's only because Mr. Fesser had the means to bring the city to court that this particular situation shed light on these events and got the attention of our community," Golter said.
"With the passage of bills such as LC 748, it is my hope that we will create an environment in Oregon police departments in which individuals are held accountable for racist behavior. I also hope that more transparency will lead to a healthier system where this type of behavior is not allowed to go unnoticed."
State Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Democrat from Clackamas and an African American, is the co-chair of the joint committee. She had the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office called on her in 2018, when she was canvassing a neighborhood as part of her second-term campaign.
"The purpose of these conversations is to make sure there are standards, that everyone can move freely about the state, and everyone who wears a badge is committed to that freedom," she said.
"While some people may feel that the issues of policing are not present in their community, I would urge them to reach out to communities of color — however small they may be — and ask them how they feel. Ask people who may live in the metropolitan area if they feel safe coming to your community. There are some places that when I go to a particular part of Oregon, people will tell me: I'm not going there, I do not feel safe."
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