When cases of police brutality rose, the city of Portland, Oregon responded in 2001 by establishing a Citizen Review Committee, a civilian advisory board to the Independent Police Review, the city agency that investigates complaints of officer misconduct. While the Committee had no direct power to impose disciplinary action, it has nonetheless been the subject of opposition and push back not only from current police force members and police veterans, but several politicians and agency leaders who claim to favor police reform and oversight.
The Committee was supposed to be a culmination of a long struggle to insure some measure of civilian oversight, but in the wake of the Portland community’s enduring protests in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in Minnesota, it became apparent to some CRC members that their committee’s existence was more symbolic that a true means of accountability.
One committee member resigned due to an impending move to the Seattle area, but it was quickly followed by committeeman Adam Green, whose reasoning was far more blunt. His letter of resignation stated, “the events of this past weekend were a tipping point for me. We continue to witness excessive force used by officers on the streets. Members of the media continue to be threatened. Armed Trump supporters are allowed to parade through downtown Portland while pointing guns at people that aren’t wearing Trump gear. These are just a few examples of a failed system with failed leadership. I can no longer support this system in any way.”
A third resignation in less than 24 hours followed from Hillary Houck, whose resignation letter scolded the mayor and chief of police. “In a time that police accountability is ever more important, I can no longer be a part of a group that is undermined by the Mayor or the Chief of Police. It is unfortunate that the CNC is not given more power, as it could easily be restructured to fulfill its mission and be a true place for social justice.”
High Turnover Plagues Committee
The three resignations follows the resignation of the Committee’s former chairwoman in January, who also quit in protest over the mayor’s interference and lack of action in giving the oversight bodies the authority they need to carry out their purpose. She applauded him for saying the right things, but said the time had come for him to now do the right thing.
The three abrupt resignations in September were far from unusual for the CRC. High turnover has plagued the committee for years with the lack of true oversight authority cited by others who have resigned over the years. A mass resignation of five committee members in 2003 just two years after the Committee was formed threatened its continued existence.
Charter Amendment Ballot Measure
In November, voters in Portland overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the City Charter establishing a new Police Oversight Board. This new board would have the authority to subpoena witnesses and compel the police to turn over documents and evidence in matters of complaints against members of the Police Bureau. The board would also have disciplinary authority up to and including terminating officers in cases of severe misconduct.
The measured passed by a 81.6% to 18.4% margin; however, some barriers remained preventing the Board from assuming its full authority. Moreover, the Portland Police Association, the union representing most offices of the Portland Police Bureau, immediately filed a grievance when the ballot measure was approved by voters, claiming the measure violates their bargaining rights and seeking to limit the Board’s authority.
Oregon Legislature steps in
With such overwhelming community support evident and the pressure from the aftermath of the George Floyd protests still fresh on peoples’ minds, the Oregon Legislature delved into the battle. With the passage of Senate Bill 621, the state has officially given its blessing to the authority voter approved police oversight boards and removed any requirement for such boards to negotiate with police unions.
While some Police and Sheriffs’ unions in the state vow to continue the fight against such boards, other unions have signaled their support for greater transparency. The powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) strongly disputed the notion that SB 621 is anti-union, noting that the bill does not remove collective bargaining provisions over wages, healthcare, pensions and other employee benefits.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed the bill into law June 23rd. A spokesman for Portland Police Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said the process is now underway to select the community members who will sit on the board and the board is expected to begin its work later this year.