Portland Copwatch and NAACP host public testimony preceding police reform vote

Portland NAACP and Portland Copwatch organized a 33–strong public testimonial about three items concerning Portland’s Police Bureau around 3 p.m. Aug. 3 at Portland City Hall. Mayor Ted Wheeler was present in addition to commissioners Chloe Eudaly, Nick Fish, Amanda Fritz, and Dan Saltzman.

Before the proceedings started, shouting could be heard from outside the chamber doors from people who were being denied access to the testimony hearing. The shouting persisted until those who were outside were shuffled into the overflow area. 

Two minutes into the proceedings, a woman yelled from the crowd to “let the public in.” She looked to the balcony overlooking the chambers from above the general seating was closed and empty, and yet members of the public, NAACP and Copwatch had to use the overflow room. Security personnel escorted the woman from the chambers after she shouted several more expletives at Wheeler. The overhead balcony remained closed for the remainder of the session.

Invited guests spoke much longer than anticipated, with one speaker taking up almost an hour to provide context, much to the irritation of the general public. According to some who yelled from the audience, the context was not needed.

The public testified around 6 p.m., nearly three hours after the proceedings began.

“Having the department of justice spend an hour and fifteen minutes telling us what you were going to be voting on was extremely disrespectful to the people who took off from work, took off from school, and took off from their families to come down here and have their voice heard,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, president of Portland NAACP.

The three topics of discussion involved post-deadly force procedure, the Portland Commission on Community Engaged Policing, and reform for the manner in which police complaints would be handled.

The first item up for discussion was post-deadly force procedure, in particular, a 1982 Oregon supreme court decision that prevents compelled interviews from officers who have engaged in use of deadly force, giving them 48 hours to talk with attorneys before having to give interviews to investigators or issue a public statement. It is known by most as the 48-hour rule.

“I’m not convinced that a case from 1982 should be the final word on issues of police accountability and public trust today,” Wheeler said. “That’s why this ordinance, if passed, creates a policy that would compel interviews and wall off employment investigations. I oppose the 48-hour rule…I am not prepared to immunize an officer who uses deadly force from criminal prosecution.”

However, City Attorney Tracy Reeve and Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill point out there is some “tension” in the law concerning the removal of the 48-hour rule. There is a risk that any compelled statement given by the officer for a personnel inquiry could affect the legality of any voluntary statement given in criminal investigations. This is true even if the compelled statement is never seen by the criminal investigation.

However, many public member testimonies have called for a statement to be given within 24 hours after an incident.

The second item concerned PCCEP, an attempt to replace the failed Community Oversight Advisory Board. This item was of particular interest to the public.

“Meetings of the former COAB devolved into shouting matches, racist and sexist slurs, and even threats,” Wheeler said. “Appointed members expressed actual fear about attending meetings. Many felt threatened or harassed. Many members of that organization resigned, including two of its chairs…and the city council for the most part would not replace members until the process was reformed. The new engagement body that this contemplates, PCCEP, will allow for the dissemination of information to the community and [meaningful] public feedback.”

Nicole Grant, senior policy advisor for Wheeler, said PCCEP will function as a facilitator between the community and PPB to improve transparency and accountability. It will also “empower” community members to provide feedback to PPB about its policies concerning use of force, officer discipline, interactions with those experiencing mental illnesses, and racial justice. The PPB will be required to provide written responses to this feedback.

“The people of Portland need to know that this proposal was born out of thoughtful engagement with the community,” Grant said. “We know what’s at stake. If we do not move forward with the plan, we will be faced with continued and unyielding strife between the bureau and the community it is bound to serve.”

Dr. Leroy Haynes was invited to speak on PCCEP and objected to the removal of community oversight. Haynes also called for more community membership, for a more diverse membership, and for more meetings to be open to the general public.

Other community members also expressed their dissatisfaction with PCCEP. Jason Rundell, a member of the public who testified, called for more public meetings, independent assessment, more public involvement, and no “exclusive” mayoral control. Under the new ordinance it would be the role of the mayor to appoint and control the PCCEP.

“We may like the mayor we have right now, or we may not, but having one person make that decision is not oversight, especially when that person also has the role of police commissioner,” Hardesty said. “What [the city council] is being ask to support is a smack in the face to community members who want accountability, who want justice, and who don’t believe that someone without a weapon deserved to be killed on the streets in the city of Portland. This PR group that is being proposed to you is a smack in the face to community members.”

The third item allows the city’s Independent Police Review, after internal affairs, to make recommendations about officer misconduct. This would be a change from current operations which allow recommendations from the officer’s supervisor instead.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the ordinances Aug. 9.