Advocates Hopeful About New Police Chief, Still Wish They’d Been Consulted First

From the Portland Mercury, October 7, 2014

Most people who follow police issues in Portland had a pretty good sense Police Chief Mike Reese would be ready to hand over the reins once a federal judge approved a long-awaited police reform settlement between the city and the US Department of Justice.

But that’s not to say the precise timing of that announcement—yesterday afternoon—wasn’t a surprise to a few prominent community members and accountability advocates who’d expected some kind of private warning, along with the chance to chime in on how any transition might play out. At the same time as Mayor Charlie Hales announced Reese would be retiring as of January 2, 2015, he also declared that Reese’s longest-tenured assistant chief, Larry O’Dea, would be Reese’s replacement.

“We didn’t have any input,” says Doctor LeRoy Haynes, chairman of Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform—which was granted enhanced status, meaning it could file papers and lobby for changes, during the court fight over Portland’s police reforms. “The AMA Coalition will work with anyone the mayor selects. At the same time, we would have want to give some input on the process.”

Haynes said he’d hoped Hales—who has touted the orderly changeover atop the police bureau—would have taken the opportunity, at a “crucial time” for the city, to reach out to the city’s African American and police justice communities before formally making such a major decision. Haynes said the AMA had similarly criticized Mayor Sam Adams when Reese was hired in a sudden coup of former Chief Rosie Sizer. But with the federal reforms finally ready for implementation, Haynes argues the stakes are even higher.

“It’s interesting that the mayor, even after the great criticism that went to former Mayor Adams, he followed that same process,” Haynes says, “which is antithetical to what Portland has represented throughout the years, which is having community input.”

Haynes did allow that O’Dea is known for his openness to working with minority communities (O’Dea, for instance, was lauded by the city’s Human Rights Commission in a statement yesterday.) The AMA, he says, has a meeting with Hales at 4 this afternoon where O’Dea will be formally introduced. Haynes says O’Dea hadn’t previously been a regular participant in Hales and Reese’s regular meetings with the AMA.

“He is noted for being open and engaged with community groups,” Haynes says of O’Dea. “He probably will be more open than Chief Reese has been with community groups, in actually engaging and taking the initiative. That has been his portfolio in the community. Hopefully he will keep that up.”

Other police reform advocates haven’t been so charitable. Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland has long lobbied city officials to keep focused on the main finding of the Justice Department—that Portland officers have engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force against people with mental illness. He said Hales missed an opportunity by not seeking public comment before hiring a new chief.

Hales, Renaud says, “skipped” a chance “to see what the community was thinking about the future of the Portland Police Bureau.” He also questions Hales’ commitment to mental health issues, given O’Dea’s emphasis on other aspects of community policing.

“He might be excellent,” Renaud says of O’Dea. “But he’s never engaged with the mental health community as far as I know.”

O’Dea’s earned praise, at least, from other quarters of city hall. Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who’s juggled the demands of the mayor’s office, mental health advocates, and racial justice advocates in running the city’s hiring process for someone to oversee the city’s police reforms, has called O’Dea an “excellent choice.”

“I look forward to working with him,” she says, “particularly on equity issues and implementation of the DOJ settlement agreement.”