Police contract talks with city of Portland begin
City negotiators opened talks by seeking new educational requirements for officers pursuing promotions and greater ability for city officials to speak publicly about alleged police misconduct
By Maxine Bernstein
PORTLAND — Calling it a “moment of change,” city negotiators Wednesday opened Portland police contract talks by seeking new educational requirements for officers pursuing promotions, greater latitude for city officials to speak publicly about alleged police misconduct and police performance evaluations that could lead to discipline.
But the lawyer for the Portland Police Association said the union opposes any “public shaming” of officers and wants funding for any courses required for police promotions. Employee reviews, he said, should offer constructive not punitive feedback.
Both sides said changes in the contract should aim to reestablish public trust in the Police Bureau. They don’t agree on how to reach that goal.
Negotiations over contract terms got underway amid heightened calls for significant police reforms in the wake of an unprecedented social justice movement sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who couldn’t breathe when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.
Floyd’s videotaped death prompted nearly seven months of protests in Portland streets with many demonstrators calling for defunding police. City commissioners cut $27 million from the Police Bureau budget this fiscal year and eliminated several units, including its Gun Violence Reduction Team and Transit Division.
The city also passed a November ballot measure to create a community board to investigate police misconduct. But that’s not part of these talks, the city’s lead negotiator said. The city expects to bargain on the board in about a year and a half once a committee decides its structure and makeup. Meanwhile, a state senator has proposed Senate Bill 621 to try to prevent the voter-approved measure from being challenged in bargaining.
Attorney Anil Karia, representing the approximately 880-member union of officers, detectives, forensic criminalists and sergeants, said any plans to create the independent board or change the police discipline process should have been negotiated before putting the proposal on the ballot. The union has filed a formal grievance and unfair labor practice complaint.
Karia said the union is seeking “common sense policing” and a contract that will help repair a bureau that he argued is drastically understaffed and struggling with a record number of retirements and officers’ resignations.
The staffing shortage has led to much slower police emergency response times at a time when the city has experienced a significant increase in shootings and killings. Portland recorded 55 homicides in 2020, the highest in 26 years.
“The dwindling staffing levels are hurting our community, “ Karia said. “It’s hurting our service levels. It’s hurting officer morale.”
He called the bureau’s average response times for all type of calls, nearly 35 minutes, “scary” compared to an average response of 17 minutes eight years ago.
Karia credited the bureau’s top brass with trying to find workarounds to what he described as a “catastrophic situation” by pulling canine police and traffic officers back to patrol. But he added, “It feels like they’re moving deck chairs around on a sinking ship.”
Brian Hunzeker, a Portland officer for 23 years who recently took over as union president, said the bureau should focus on reviving community policing, reducing crime and rebuilding public confidence in police. He argued that meaningful reform can occur only when “all stakeholders have a seat at the table,” including the union.
He criticized the November ballot measure, led by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, because it lacked union involvement. He said it was an example of “how not to go about police reform.”
Labor lawyer Steven Schuback, the city’s lead negotiator, said the city will give the union more details on the community oversight board when they’re formulated and “ample notice” to negotiate.
“We acknowledge that bargaining obligation and we would engage in that,” he said.
The city’s sought-after reforms are intended to improve police accountability and repair the Police Bureau’s relationship with the community, Schuback said.
The city has proposed tying performance evaluations to potential discipline, which isn’t allowed now. The city wants to hold officers accountable, for example, if they’re continually tardy or not performing as desired, Schuback said.
Karia said that would affect officers’ due process rights and amounts to a “weaponization” of the evaluations. Nothing now, he said, stops the bureau from trying to discipline officers for alleged misconduct or policy violations separate from performance evaluations.
The city also wants to require officers who seek a promotion to sergeant, detective or criminalist to complete 12 credit hours of courses on implicit bias, micro aggression, racism and gender bias on their own time. The requirement would become effective Jan. 1, 2023.
While the bureau offers similar training, the city wants officers to obtain additional training apart from the bureau, Schuback said.
The intent is to identify “more learned” officers for promotions, he said.
The city also wants to limit the type of secondary jobs that police can hold to community-based, civic or special events in the city. The city wants to shift away from having officers assigned to private-type side jobs, such as for individual businesses.
The union’s lawyer signaled the union’s objection, saying such a change could affect “monetary issues” for officers and requires negotiation.
City officials also want the power to publicly speak about potential police misconduct early in an investigation and not wait until an investigation is completed, Schuback said.
“We know that process takes quite some time,” he said. “At the same time, there are grave public concerns related to some of these incidents. We want to have a discussion about the necessity that may require a public response by city officials.”
The current contract’s so-called “embarrassment clause’' now says officer reprimands should be done in a way “least likely to embarrass” them in public.
The union’s lawyer responded that the city needs to consider “the human element” underlying the contract provision.
“The PPA is not interested and never will be interested in the public shaming of its members,” Karia said. “So if a mere allegation is the trigger for the public dissemination of personal information, obviously that’s an area of concern for the union.”
Karia also stressed the need to protect officers’ personal information, noting that an “angry mob” of 10 to 15 people showed up in front of his house about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, the eve of contract talks. He said their actions marked “an effort to intimidate me, my family and my kids.”
Union leaders said the people stepped onto Karia’s porch, banged on windows and tore down an exterior camera.
“I find that personally reprehensible, and if you sense a touch of anger in my voice, that’s what you’re getting,” Karia said.
The next public bargaining session is Feb. 10. The city-hosted talks will be held in public; the union hosted sessions will take place behind closed doors.
Wednesday started the 150 calendar day countdown before the two sides can seek mediation. If not, talks can continue. If they reach an impasse, each side would present a last-best offer to an arbitrator.
(c)2021 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)