Portland Police Reform and a Pair of Missed Milestones

From the Portland Mercury, June 4, 2014

By now, based on the wishful thinking of the past few months, Portland City Hall ought to have marked a pair of major and incredibly consequential police reform milestones.

Amanda Fritz

Amanda Fritz

A much-contested reform deal between the city, the Portland Police Association, and the US Department of Justice—calling for new training, tighter use-of-force policies, and speedier misconduct investigations—seemed destined to receive US District Court Judge Michael Simon’s approving signature back in April.

READ – DOJ v. City of Portland Settlement Agreement

Which is about when the city had aimed to start vetting some of the (hopefully) highly accomplished applicants vying to do the difficult work of overseeing those reforms. The posting for the position—officially billed as a “compliance officer/community liaison” (COCL)—optimistically placed the job’s “anticipated start date” as sometime this month.

But actually, so far (and maybe unsurprisingly), neither of those things has been checked off the city’s list. As a result, one of the most important promises of federal police reform—real civilian oversight—remains unfulfilled and in a troubling state of limbo.

Simon was all set to approve the reform deal this spring, provided he got his way on one seemingly small point: the right to compel annual updates on the reforms in his courtroom.

But instead of cheerily saying yes, the city and its rank-and-file police union have refused Simon’s request. And, despite the weeks he gave them to bargain over a plausible alternative, they’ve been unable to strike a deal. Now Simon will decide next month whether to hold his nose and accept the deal anyway—or cast the whole thing down.

But that’s still better than the slow-going selection process for the COCL post. Despite plans to air three finalists way back in April, the city is still combing through applicants and doesn’t appear remotely close to reaching a list that small.

READ – job posting for Portland’s COCL position

Sources say modest tensions, kept very quiet, have arisen between police accountability advocates.

Though the police reform deal emphasizes improving police treatment of Portlanders with mental illness, mental health advocates, so far, say the hiring process has favored advocates more interested in addressing racial profiling. Those complaints have convinced Commissioner Amanda Fritz to lengthen the vetting process.

“We’ve not had mental health communities at the table,” Fritz says. “We’re not going forward until they are.”

But maybe worse, sources say, is the caliber of the current applicants. They point to cities like Seattle, which hired a nationally respected police consultant to oversee its reform process, and they ruefully note that no one similarly decorated has applied in Portland. Sources also say the pool tilts more toward experience with racial issues than mental health.

Twelve résumés have been pulled for further screening. Fritz says she’s confident the city will cull that list down to three, and then one.

Mental health advocates appreciate Fritz’s efforts.

“Amanda is trying to find an easier path to make this work,” says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland.

But those advocates aren’t so sure it will work—they’re worried it’s going to be too little, too late.