Building on last month’s federal report that blasted Portland cops’ use of unconstitutional force against the mentally ill, the US Department of Justice and city officials last Friday, October 26, reached accord on a “watershed” set of reforms bearing big promises—but even bigger questions.
The agreement aims to expand civilian oversight of the police bureau, strengthen mental health treatment and training, tighten Taser and use-of-force policies, and speed up misconduct investigations.
“This is a watershed moment,” Mayor Sam Adams said. “We are fully embracing the responsibilities we have and the realities we face.”
But that landmark moment comes with a major price tag that Adams doesn’t yet know how he’ll pay: $3.5 million in annual costs for dozens of new positions—cheaper than in cities like New Orleans and Seattle, but a tough sum to absorb in a city facing budget cuts.
The deal also leaves much of the implementation to Portland’s next police commissioner. And advocates who have been tracking civil rights issues for years already are asking whether the deal actually addresses the problems laid out by the feds.
“It doesn’t solve my problem at all,” says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, who wrote to the feds asking why the agreement doesn’t include stronger provisions for firing cops who use excessive force. “There are police officers on the streets who have killed my friends. And they’re likely to kill again.”
Some changes, however, will happen quickly. Portland City Council is set to approve the reforms at a 2 pm hearing this Thursday, November 1. Then, the council will immediately seek out applicants to serve as a new city compliance officer—someone charged with making sure the city delivers on its promises while also leading a 15-member community oversight board (of which five members would be nominated citywide).
That person will not serve as a monitor with court-bestowed powers, officials say. Rather, he or she will report quarterly to the feds and to the public on how well the city is holding up its end of the bargain.
The police bureau also must begin sifting through several changes in training, policy, and oversight, including:
• Creating an Addictions and Behavioral Health Unit that will have power over a restored Crisis Intervention Team of specially trained mental health officers and oversee an expansion of the bureau’s mobile crisis units.
• How to wrap up misconduct investigations, including appeals, within 180 days—far shorter than the current year-plus average. The police bureau’s Internal Affairs division and the city’s Independent Police Review division are both expected to nearly double their teams of investigators.
• Changing Taser policies to ban the use of multiple stun guns on the same person at the same time. Cops will be also banned from using consecutive Taser cycles on someone—a change long sought by advocates.
Another key element required a buy-in, not only from the feds and the cops, but also the city’s health care industry. The state’s Coordinated Care Organizations (CCOs), tasked with implementing federal health care reform in Oregon, have promised to add, by mid-2013, at least one center where cops can drop off people in crisis.
That’s sooner, Adams explained, than the CCOs otherwise would have moved. CCOs also will work with the city and Multnomah County to improve treatment in clinics and emergency rooms.
The city has at least five years to make the fixes. But skeptics, including Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, worry the city will skirt some of the more substantive reforms through the use of loopholes.
He lamented that Police Review Board hearings, which greatly inform discipline decisions by the chief’s office, remain closed to the public. Discipline, or a lack thereof, in deadly force cases still can’t be appealed. And he cited a change that would ban any cop rapped for the use of force in a three-year period from training other officers.
“The police want to find ways to keep doing what they’re doing,” Handelman says. “Nobody ever gets found guilty of use of force. They are accused, but it’s rare someone gets found out of policy.”
Both mayoral candidates, Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith, have indicated—Hales explicitly so—that they’ll keep Police Chief Mike Reese. Both also tell the Mercury they’ll be willing to make deep cuts at city hall while also looking to Multnomah County for help with funding.
But Smith appears more willing to play a bit rough if either the cops or the health care system refuse to fall in line. He says he’d hold up permits and zoning approvals for the CCOs if they didn’t work with the city.
“Since this is a federal agreement and the department of justice has also investigated our state mental health system,” Smith says, “the CCOs also have an incentive to live up to their end of the deal, lest they face greater scrutiny.”
And he also said he’d take action if, for example, the benchmarks for speedier misconduct probes aren’t met.
“The question of a special [court-appointed] monitor,” Smith says, “might need to be revisited.”