Judge approves settlement in DOJ v City of Portland, mandates annual reports on police reforms

Judge Michael Simon 1Portland Mercury, August 29, 2014

A federal judge this afternoon has decided to accept a proposed package of police reforms negotiated between the city, the US Department of Justice, the Portland Police Association and the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform—setting in motion a rapid series of deadlines for putting the deal in place nearly two years after it was first tentatively announced.

But nodding to one of his concerns as he considered the deal, US District Court Judge Michael Simon has insisted on bringing all of the parties to the case into his courtroom for annual hearings, potentially risking an appeal that could, once more, throw a wrench into the process.

Simon also touched on another concern that’s become even more relevant in light of events in Ferguson, Missouri: that the deal doesn’t require police here to wear body cameras. He said he didn’t think it was enough of a limitation to reject all of the other reforms, meant to answer federal accusations that Portland police have engaged in an unconstitutional pattern or practice of using excessive force against people with mental illness and that officers improperly used Tasers and generally were too quick to use force in contacts with subjects.

The deal negotiated by the city and the feds adds new rules for Tasers, allows cops to be graded on how their decisions before using force, created a new behavioral health unit in the police bureau, along with an enhanced team of crisis-trained officeres, and seeks to dramatically speed up misconduct investigations.

It seemed to call—most importantly—for at least one new drop-off or walk-in center for people with mental illness. But in a hearing this winter, the city and feds both acknowledged that such a goal was never more than “aspirational”—despite no one ever saying that back in the fall of 2012.

READDOJ v Portland – final settlement (PDF,  117KB)

Update 12:45 PM: The most obvious question, for now, is whether the city or PPA can and/or will challenge Simon’s ruling requiring annual updates. I’ve left a message asking that question with Deputy City Attorney Ellen Osoinach, one of the main city litigators assigned to the police reform settlement. Daryl Turner, president of the PPA, told me he didn’t have an immediate comment on the ruling.

Update 2:29 PM: The AMA coalition has issued a statement praising Simon’s ruling—in particular the call for annual updates, something the AMA argued for over and over again in hearings with Simon this year.

Simon this spring signaled he was interested in regular updates, prompting disagreement from the PPA and city, who questioned the particulars and worried it would undo a delicate mediation agreement between the two last year that lifted the reforms out of legal and labor limbo.

The AMA’s attorneys argued Simon was free to order hearings even if the parties in the case didn’t agree to them. Simon ultimately took up their reasoning, rejecting a compromise effort to have the city’s police reform monitor come to court and present a report in the parties’ stead. The DOJ, despite signing onto that compromise this summer, also told Simon it wouldn’t stand in the way of a more robust protocol for updates.

The Coalition is particularly grateful that Judge Simon has insisted on the participation of all four parties to the lawsuit—the DOJ, the AMA Coalition, the City and the Police Association—as well as reports from the Compliance Officer/ Community Liaison.

The Settlement Agreement, while primarily focused on those experiencing mental health issues, should lead to better treatment of all Portlanders.

This ruling is a major step to creating a true community policing culture within the Portland Police Bureau in light of the national attention on Deadly Force and Excessive Force by the Police Department in the Michael Brown death in Ferguson, Missouri.

Yet, there is an intensified need for community engagement and community dialogue to prevent a Ferguson upheaval in Portland and keep Portland striving to create a national model of community policing.

The AMA Coalition for Justice and Police Reform is working toward these five goals:

1. A federal investigation by the Justice Department to include criminal and civil rights violations, as well as a federal audit of patterns and practices of the Portland Police Bureau.

2. Strengthening the Independent Police Review Division and the Citizen Review Committee with the goal of adding power to compel testimony.

3. A full review of the Bureau’s excessive force and deadly force policies and training with diverse citizen participation for the purpose of making recommendations to change policies and training.

4. The Oregon State Legislature narrowing the language of the State statute for deadly force used by police officers.

5. Establishing a special prosecutor for police excessive force and deadly force cases.

Update 4:17 PM: Mayor Charlie Hales has issued a statement on Simon’s ruling that suggests the city won’t argue with the judge’s call for annual updates that will start, per his order, in September 2015.

“We all want our Police Bureau to treat all people with humanity and dignity, and to have the tools and training necessary to deal with the complexities of mental illness. This agreement, now affirmed, solidifies Portland’s commitment to serving our diverse community.

“Judge Simon’s order, approving the settlement, helps move us forward in implementing reforms related to hiring, training, rules of force and discipline of police officers. We are in the process of hiring a Compliance Officer/Community Liaison. We’re serious about having a police force that appreciates the issues around mental illness and that utilizes de-escalation tactics.”