Portland activists, others say police-reform agreement doesn’t go far enough

From The Oregonian, November 2, 2012

Community activists, attorneys and civil rights workers told Portland’s City Council Thursday that the agreement the city reached with federal officials on police reforms doesn’t go far enough.

They urged the council to slow down and not rush to sign the 74-page agreement next week.

Tom Steenson, a Portland civil rights attorney, told the Portland City Council it should not sign an agreement between the city and the Department of Justice until some changes are made.

Tom Steenson, a Portland civil rights attorney, told the Portland City Council it should not sign an agreement between the city and the Department of Justice until some changes are made.

Civil rights attorney Tom Steenson, who represented the families of James P. Chasse Jr. and Aaron Campbell in federal lawsuits against the city, said he could not understand why several recommended changes to police practices were rejected. He said the agreement lacks several “best practices” governing police training and accountability.

“Don’t approve the agreement as it stands,” Steenson told the council. “I think that you need to step back and look at this and give much more consideration.”

The Rev. T. Allen Bethel, of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, said the lack of real community involvement has continued to erode the community’s trust that the reforms in the agreement will be put in place.

Bethel and others urged an independent court-appointed monitor to be assigned to oversee the changes.

“This agreement needs to be relooked at, renegotiated and needs to come back with teeth,” Bethel said.

The agreement was announced last Friday, more than a month after the U.S. Department of Justice found the Police Bureau engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force against people with mental illness. The agreement contains changes to bureau policies on use of force, its training of officers, retention of records, and community oversight.

Becky Straus, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the council has an opportunity “to achieve lasting change” in the Police Bureau.

But she said she worries that there’s not enough oversight.

“We continue to be concerned that there is not enough accountability to ensure that what is mandated will ever be actualized,” the ACLU’s written testimony says. “We are disappointed that the Agreement stops short of this necessary safeguard.”

Several members of the city’s Human Rights Commission decried the agreement’s dismantling of the Community Police Relations Committee, which would be replaced by a 15-voting member Community Oversight Board to ensure the DOJ reforms are put in place.

Kyle Busse
, chair-elect of the Human Rights Commission, said he’s concerned that the important work of improving race relations by the Community Police Relations Committees would be jeopardized.

“It was a surprise to learn they’d be uprooted and be put in a position they knew nothing about,” Busse said.

ACLU representatives, the League of Women Voters and Portland Copwatch argue the agreement didn’t go far enough in improving the existing police accountability system.

“The Department of Justice letter of findings called Portland’s accountability system ‘self defeating.’ Unfortunately, the remedies outlined in the agreement do little to address many of the long-standing community concerns related to the system as it currently operates,” wrote Mary McWilliams, league president, and Debbie Aiona, the league’s action committee chair, in a letter to the mayor and commissioners.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon also had recommended that the city abandon the current police oversight system involving the Independent Police Review Division and replace it with a “strong, transparent, and integrated civilian oversight body.”

Angela Kimball
, a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, urged the Police Bureau to hire a national consultant, such as retired Memphis police Major Sam Cochran, to help the bureau recreate a specialized Crisis Intervention Team of officers that work closely with mental health providers and consumers.

Kimball urged the city commissioners to show true leadership to bring about the reforms.

“Real reform can’t be decreed by a legal document,” Kimball told the council, “but only by your sustained commitment and leadership to bring the culture of the Police Bureau in line with city mores.”

James Kahan, a volunteer member of of the bureau’s Crisis Intervention Team advisory council, said he was struck by many of the agreement’s demands that the bureau bring back a voluntary group of specialized officers to respond to mental health crisis calls and reconnect with community providers and mental health consumers.

“We’ve been making them (recommendations) for years and we’ve been ignored,” Kahan said.

Busse, of the Human Rights Commission, said the council should not rush into the agreement.

“Take the time to do it right,” he said.

The mayor estimated that the annual cost of the reforms will be $5.4 million – 60 percent of that or $3.5 million is from an increase of 32 staff positions , and 40 percent represents the ongoing funding of the city’s Service Coordination Team, which connects frequent offenders with housing and treatment.

If the council wants to make any changes to the settlement agreement, city officials would have to have the buy-in of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Once the three-hour hearing came to a close, the mayor said the City Council would hold another hearing next Thursday afternoon on potential amendments to the Justice Department agreement but would not vote next week.

READ – Skeptics Sound Off at Public Airing of Feds’ Deal with Portland Police, Portland Mercury
READ – ACLU of Oregon testimony about the DOJ / City of Portland settlement
READ – League of Women Voters testimony about the DOJ / City of Portland settlement