'Placating measures'- West Linn task force finds proposal for police oversight board unsatisfactory
Several members of West Linn's Police Oversight and Accountability Task Force, a body formed in 2020 to help the city form a permanent oversight entity, found the city's new proposal for such an entity fell "embarrassingly short" of what they had hoped for.
City staff presented its proposal for a citizen "review and recommend" board to the City Council at a work session Monday, March 21, in which four members of the original task force shared their opinions on the city's outline.
In 2020, the City Council created the task force, a diverse group of 11 citizens, in the wake of the Michael Fesser settlement. The task force was charged with helping establish a permanent civilian oversight entity to provide accountability for the West Linn Police Department, with the hope that nothing like Fesser's racially motivated false arrest by WLPD would ever happen again.
"The system as laid out does little more than codify the status quo by providing no actual oversight of police management, human resources, the city manager or the city's contracted attorneys," Evan Wickersham, a member of the original task force, said during the March 21 work session. "In other words, this proposal does not accomplish transparency or independence — the values that were central to the task force's work."
Fred Groves, another member of the initial task force, said the city's proposals were mere "placating measures."
Mayor Jules Walters said she and the rest of the council shared the task force's concerns and City Manager Jerry Gabrielatos noted that the proposal was just that: a proposal, not a final plan.
The outline from city staff suggested changes to the section of the city's municipal code regarding community advisory groups.
According to the staff proposal, the board would meet quarterly to "examine trends, review complaints and review reports produced by the Police Department." Each year the group would analyze the number and type of complaints about WLPD, as well as how they were resolved, to identify areas of improvement in department policies and training.
The code amendments outlined by staff propose that one member of the board would review each complaint with the city manager, chief of police, human resources director and labor attorney. If the complaint concerned the chief, they would not be included in those discussions. Under the current complaint system, the chief would not participate in discussions of complaints against them.
"The opinion of a members (member) is only advisory, but a member is allowed to make recommendations about specific complaints and discipline as well as the complaint intake and handling process," the amendment proposed. "A member shall have no authority to make any decisions regarding actual process, actions or decisions made under the authority and sole discretion of the City."
The recommendations from the initial task force said the committee members should have some authority over disciplinary decisions.
This "Addresses (the) historic problem of findings of misconduct and a lack of consequences imposed by (the) police chief to deter further misconduct," according to the task force.
The task force's recommendations also included participation from the board in hiring decisions, performance reviews and discussions with labor counsel about union bargaining — all suggestions that were not reflected in the city's proposal.
The city's proposal notes the board would have opportunities to address the City Council with "general complaints" about police processes and city management.
The task force also had called for more transparency regarding contract bargaining, audits and previous investigations of the department, as well as disciplinary decisions and litigation.
Kristina Garcia Siegel, another of the original task force members, said she recognized few of the task force's recommendations in the proposal. She said the ones she did recognize were "severely thinned."
Staff proposed a three-person board, though the initial task force suggested a body of seven members — the majority of whom they said should be Black, Indigenous and people of color. All but one of the city's community advisory boards have seven members.
Members of the council, including Walters, Council President Rory Bialostosky and Councilors Mary Baumgardner and Bill Relyea (Councilor Todd Jones did not attend the meeting) suggested the board should have between five and seven members.
"The smaller number gives the impression that the city is less concerned with this group," Garcia Siegel wrote to the council in a letter read by Walters. "It can make a quorum for meetings more difficult to achieve, and it offers less opportunity for interested citizens to participate."
Staff's reasoning for the smaller board, Gabrielatos explained, was that the department receives few complaints and a larger board would leave little work for each member.
Chief Peter Mahuna said WLPD received 11 complaints in 2021, some of which merely concerned officers' "rude" behavior.
Wickersham said the proposal falls "embarrassingly short" of what the task force envisioned. He added he would not support the proposal unless the city meaningfully engaged with the original task force to address its concerns.
Gabrielatos said it was possible for the original task force to meet with staff and the council in the future to discuss the proposal. He noted labor attorney Steven Schuback, who is representing the city during its negotiations with the police union, must be present for such a meeting.
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