Portland City Council deferred a decision on a string of proposals from the auditor’s office to make changes to the Independent Police Review Division. The council will address the proposals Dec. 4 after more study.
Constantin Severe, IPR director, introduced the new proposals, which include: giving the IPR the power to compel officers to answer their questions; expanding the citizens review committee from nine to 11 members; allowing the IPR to open cases independently; and releasing more information to the public when officers use force.
“Our strategy is to implement the changes in the Department of Justice agreement that are most urgent,” Severe told city commissioners.
In 2012, a DOJ investigation concluded that the Portland Police Bureau operated with a “pattern or practice” that violated the civil rights of people with mental illness. The blistering report also raised concerns about police relationships with communities of color.
A long line of community organizations and citizens testified at Wednesday’s hearing, most urging council members to go further in strengthening the IPR and the citizens review committee.
READ – MHAP’s written testimony
“In no way do these recommendations address the depth and breadth of concern felt by citizens in our city,” said Michael Alexander testifying for the Urban League of Portland.
Police Chief Mike Reese introduced Capt. Dave Famous, who discussed graphs showing that both police use of force and police complaints have dropped considerably over the last 10 years.
Lt. Jeff Bell from the police bureau’s internal affairs committee said he opposed the recommendations to allow the IPR to initiate investigations and to compel officer testimony. The system currently allows the IPR to have their questions answered, he said. Changes to the current system would become an issue in negotiating the police contract. Bell and Chief Reese said several changes would be mandatory bargaining items.
“The bureau is not aware of any problems with the current system where the IPR participates in the investigation,” Reese said. “The current system is working very well. The IPR is able to participate in investigations and able to have their questions answered.”
Commissioner Nick Fish said he wanted to clarify if the change would become an issue in contract negotiation since lawyers advising the IPR and the Portland Police Bureau disagree.
Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner also raised the question of the rights of police under labor law and the police contract. He urged council members to reject the proposed changes, saying they would undermine the police line of accountability turning it over to civilians.
Jan Friedman, staff attorney with Disability Rights Oregon, said more transparency and accountability is needed to address the concerns raised in the Department of Justice report.
“If they don’t have access to police officers they are not able to do an independent investigation,” she said.
Kayse Jama, executive director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, said the changes don’t go far enough.
“We must do more and we must do it now, to achieve justice for the community,” he said.
“The oversight workgroup made 44 recommendations. Only four have been included.”
Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch also said the changes don’t go far enough.
“The changes only add power to the IPR professional staff while delaying changes that would strengthen its Citizen Review Committee,” he said. “IPR similarly pushed through a package of changes in early 2010 with virtually no public input, which led to the formation of an Oversight Stakeholders group. That group put out a report with 41 recommendations, only four of which were incorporated into the ordinance previously and only one more of which is being proposed this time.”
JoAnn Hardesty, of Consult Hardesty and a member of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, said she spoke for herself and not the alliance. She reviewed the history for council members, and reminded them that the settlement with the Department of Justice was far from final, and had been created without public comment.
“The public did not have any opportunity to weigh in,” she said. “We have departments and bureaus operating as if a settlement agreement is in place.”
Portland still faces a federal court case. After the Department of Justice civil rights investigation found the Portland Police Bureau has a “pattern or practice” of excessive force against people with mental illness, the police union challenged items in the settlement agreement with the city.
U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon ordered the police union, the city and the Justice Department to find a solution through mediation. The Albina Ministerial Alliance was also allowed to participate as community representatives. So far, the parties have failed to reach an agreement in mediation.
Judge Simon also has said he plans to hold a fairness review next summer so the public can weigh in on the final agreement.
Hardesty said that hearing will be important in deciding the fate of the settlement.
“The community fairness hearing will finally give the community an opportunity to weigh in on the settlement,” she said. And she argued the fall in complaints against officers only proved her point.
“There is a good reason why the number of complaints is down,” she said. “It’s because the community has no confidence that IPR or IA (internal affairs) has the power to investigate the police.”
Council members, Chief Reese, Severe and others voiced concerns about the 180-day limit on investigations. Reese said many factors could prevent the bureau from sticking to that timeline. He said it should be looked at as a target not a deadline.
Community advocates, on the other hand, worried that the 180-day timeline would allow officers to escape discipline if the timeline was exceeded.
City employee Jeri Williams was one of several people who shared their own frustration with a police accountability process, the DOJ called “Byzantine” and self-defeating.
Williams son, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, had an adverse experience with the police. With tears in her eyes Williams said her experience had left her with “no faith in the process.”