Portland on track to hire a federal police reform monitor by August, city claims

The Portland Mercury, June 16, 2014

or-portland optimizedPortland’s national search for a federal police reform monitor—on hiatus for almost three months after mental health advocates demanded a bigger role in the process—is apparently back on track, according to interviews with city officials and documents obtained by the Mercury.

The city began soliciting applications over the winter. And it had initially hoped to hire the reform’s monitor, technically the “compliance officer/community liaison” (shortened to COCL in city jargon), by this month. But the city was nowhere close to hitting that mark, the Mercury first reported this month. A newly updated timeframe for the hiring process, released after reporting on the delay sparked an angry response from advocates, now targets August.

As part of that shift, the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights—working on the recruitment alongside the police bureau, mayor’s office, and Commissioner Amanda Fritz—has invited a handful of advocates to serve on a new committee that would help vet applications. The office, says assistant director Joe Wahl, also must email the eight or so candidates whose résumés were still under consideration to make sure they’re still available.

“The candidates have not heard from us for over a month and half,” Wahl says. “We need to get something out to them and make sure they’re still interested. That may inform us as to the next steps.”

The hiring process stalled not long after applications had come in, about a dozen of them, in late March. Mental health advocates told Fritz they didn’t feel like there had been sufficient outreach to their community in crafting the hiring notice or in recruitment—an important issue given that the U.S. Department of Justice specifically found Portland police officers engaging in an unconstitutional pattern or practice of using force against people perceived to have mental illness.

(Officially, the job won’t start until a judge signs off on the proposed reforms—something else that’s been held up for months, thanks to an impasse over whether the city should appear in court once a year for advisory update hearings.)

The delay came even though a mental health advocate and member of the city’s commission on disabilities, Kristi Jamison, had been added to an initial panel that had been asked to give a first review of applications. That panel had already done some work before Jamison was added to it. It included Ellen Osoinach, a deputy city attorney who’d worked on the reform deal with the feds; Jo Ann Hardesty, a critic of the police reform deal, justice consultant, and steering committee member of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform; and Wahl himself.

One concern among the mental health advocates, as we previously reported, was that the candidate pool was too small and not sufficiently experienced with mental health. Sources say the candidate pool seemed more familiar with working on issues related to biased policing and racial justice.

The city still thinks it has an adequate pool of candidates, but it has since acknowledged that it could have done more to make sure mental health groups were actively recruiting potential candidates. Instead, the city merely emailed several groups about the job notice.

“There was nobody who inspired confidence,” Jamison says.

Wahl says that acknowledgment prompted discussions between Fritz and Mayor Charlie Hales and others about adding more voices from the mental health and disabilities community to the vetting process. Figuring out how that next stage of vetting might work out, and how to accommodate a new timetable, helped fuel much of the delay. Mental health advocates also have complained that it’s unclear who, in turn, will oversee the COCL—the city council or the police bureau or some other office. The COCL is being funded from the police budget.

Citing my column, Hardesty on Monday week wrote a stinging open letter to city council about the lag. She and her husband, Roger Hardesty, also held forth on their consulting firm’s Facebook page.

“There are good applicants who will be lost,” she told me, echoing her written comments, “because I don’t know good people who wait around for a year looking for a job.”

And she was still upset about what she felt was a lack of communication. Hardesty said she didn’t even realize how and why the process had been held up until reading the Mercury. She also disputes the idea that the COCL must specialize in dealing with mental illness, pointing out that the reforms negotiated between the city and the feds call for an annual report on police contacts with all citizens and how the bureau is working to address biased policing.

“It’s a false argument to have either/or,” says Hardesty, who confirmed her consulting firm was named as a subcontractor in at least one candidate’s application (city officials have since been assured Hardesty was unaware her firm had been included.

“The one thing all communities agreed upon was we did not want the job to be so narrowly focused that only someone with a police background would qualify.”

But Hardesty says she’s especially concerned that further delay means the police bureau will continue to implement what it says are new policies connected to the reforms—without anyone outside the bureau actually making sure those new policies and changes are doing what’s promised.

“There’s a disconnect at city hall,” Hardesty says. “It appears police reform has been turned over to [Chief Mike] Reese.”

The Mercury has since learned that the next committee to help vet candidates will attempt to bridge what had loomed as a divide between police accountability advocates who’d, for years, been publicly united. One potential member? Former State Senator Avel Gordly, the first African American woman elected to that legislative body—someone whose son has been hospitalized with mental illness and once was shot by police, with a beanbag gun. Other invitees include a public defender and a psychologist.

Hardesty says she sees room for “common ground” moving forward. And so do mental health advocates who’e spoken with the Mercury. They emphasize the need for a discussion around “culturally competent” mental health treatment—suggesting that a lack of comfort with services, and easy access, could be one reason (but certainly far from the only one) African American men are disproportionately counted in police shootings and other police contacts.

“We should be allies,” Jamison says, making clear that a candidate with sufficient experience in mental health can still be equally steeped in work promoting racial justice. “Everybody is affected by mental health.”