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Lights from a police vehicle are displayed outside the Portland Police Bureau on Friday, March 8, 2024, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 29 May 2024

As the voter-approved Community Board for Police Accountability begins to take shape, the Portland Police Association’s initiative to de-fang it hit a snag last week.

In 2020, voters approved changing the city charter to create a new, independent police oversight board with the power to discipline and even fire law enforcement staff in cases of egregious misconduct. In February, the police union filed a ballot initiative that would repeal the board’s status as an independent body, remove its abilities to discipline and fire officers and redline its budget. 

In March, Pastor LeRoy Haynes joined the ACLU, the League of Women Voters and Portland Forward to argue in court that the approved petition title and description was misleading and potentially deceptive to voters. 

“The court was right to inform voters that the Portland Police union’s initiative would radically water down Portland’s modernized system,” Haynes, chair of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, said. 

A Vague Measure

At issue was the ballot title as filed by the city: “Amends Charter: Changes authority, membership and budget for community police oversight board,” and the question posed to voters, “Should Portland change police oversight board authority to recommend but not impose discipline; amend investigatory authority; revise membership, budget requirements?”

Circuit Court Judge Katharine von Ter Stegge found that the language failed to communicate that the initiative was effectively an appeal of the 2020 measure, which passed with 82% of the vote. 

The judge instead suggested and approved a new ballot title: "Amends Charter: Reduces authority, changes membership, budget for community police oversight," with the question posed to voters: "Should Portland eliminate community oversight board authority to impose discipline for police misconduct; amend investigatory authority; revise membership, budget requirements?" 

The police union has yet to collect all the signatures needed for the measure to appear before voters in November. 

Voters Challenged?

The Community Board for Police Accountability “would be completely decimated by what the PPA presented,” Dan Handelman, of Portland Cop Watch and the city’s Police Accountability Commission (PAC), told The Skanner. “They said (the board) would be advisory, can’t issue discipline upon officers and they would take the equivalent of 5% of the police budget and cut it down to whatever the city council finds appropriate.” 

For the volunteers who worked over 20 months to engage with the community, research and produce a final report to the city council last year, the move to second-guess voters is frustrating if familiar. 

jo ann hardesty 2022 introJo Ann HardestyFormer city commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty introduced Measure 26-217 in October 2020, after more than 100 consecutive days of protests that began in response to George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. In a city where in 2012 the U.S. Department of Justice found the police had violated the rights of people with mental illness, the measure granted the new board some subpoenaing powers and prohibited current and former law enforcement officers, or those who have experience or immediate family members in law enforcement, from serving on the board. The measure guarantees board funding that is proportional to at least 5% of the Portland Police Bureau’s annual operational budget -- though it should be noted it does not take funding away from PPB to accomplish this.

In September, the 20-member volunteer Police Accountability Commission (PAC) presented new city code recommendations to the city council after a reported 128 public meetings and 23 community engagement sessions. In November, a number of PAC members testified against the city’s "diluted" draft of the new code, which proposed the police oversight board be cut from 33 members to 21, require a third of the nominating committee be comprised by law enforcement officials and require board members to participate in police ride-alongs.

mingus mapps 2022 introMingus Mappsrene gonzalez 2023 introRene GonzalezA year ago, city commissioners and current mayoral candidates Rene Gonzalez and Mingus Mapps both publicly expressed their misgivings about the new police oversight board. 

“The charter is like our constitution for the city,” Handleman told The Skanner.

“The only thing that can change that is a vote by the public.”

Uncertain Status

Many PAC members have testified to the council that they felt their work was being completely ignored. 

“In the absence of regular progress updates, those of us who devoted so much time and attention to the effort have been left to wonder where things stand,” PAC member Debbie Aiona testified to the city council last week.

“I’d like to encourage the city attorney and mayor’s office to share regular updates with the public going forward.

"The many voters who supported Measure 26-217 would likely also appreciate knowing.”

Handleman said most PAC members are still in regular contact.

“Last week we found out the city turned over a revised code proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice on May 6,” Handleman told the council last week. “This indicates that negotiations with Portland Police Association had ended. It would be great if the city could share that draft with the community or specifically the former members of the PAC for review.”

Under the Department of Justice’s 2014 settlement with Portland, the city is required to have an active police oversight board – and changes to it must be reviewed and approved by the DOJ.

“It would be great if we could get a pledge today that there will be opportunity for meaningful public input when the draft comes back from the DOJ and before the council adopts it,” Handleman told the city council during public comment last week. 

During that meeting, the council voted unanimously to add the Community Police Oversight System Code to reflect charter reform – another large, voter-approved change to city governance. 

The code was added as a placeholder of sorts, so that the oversight board would be considered in budget allocations. 

In reviewing the ordinance, Aiona and Handleman were happy to find the city had adopted another of its recommendations – that the oversight board be located in the same service area as the city's Bureau of Human Resources, rather than in the public safety service area.

“This will greatly increase both the perceived and real independence of the new system,” Handleman said. 

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