Portland holds first public hearing on negotiated police union contract

The mayor and city councilors backed the four-year contract, which offers a 13% to 20% pay raise

By Maxine Bernstein

PORTLAND, Ore. — The mayor and Portland City Council members said Thursday a four-year contract with the police union lays the foundation for greater officer accountability and oversight while addressing the need to improve hiring and retention of officers.

Yet community members who addressed the council at their first hearing on the $56.4 million agreement said the contract falls short.

Some pointed out that the city failed to eliminate a clause that says any reprimand of an officer should be done in a way “least likely to embarrass” that officer in public.

Others complained that the contract doesn’t address police overtime costs, restrict officers’ secondary jobs or require drug testing for officers after they use force.

“We had hoped to see larger gains in the contract, particularly at a time of unprecedented engagement,” said James Ofsink, president of a grassroots political group called Portland Forward. “But we do feel the process was a huge improvement over past negotiations.”

Officers could get between a 13% to 20% pay increase under the contract, including retention bonuses, a wage bump for completing required crisis intervention training and extra pay for earning higher education degrees or attaining higher police certification levels, plus cost-of-living adjustments.

About $15 million of the overall contract cost through 2025 is to cover the extra pay for crisis intervention training, academic degrees and intermediate and advanced police certifications.

The contract offers retention bonuses of $5,000 to all officers after the contract is ratified and another $2,000 in 2024 and a one-time $3,000 retention bonus for non-sworn public safety specialists. Retirees brought back to work also would get a $5,000 recruitment bonus.

“We are competing with both local and national law enforcement agencies,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “The pay increases focus on matters important to the city and to the public: crisis intervention training, education and (state) certifications.”

Community member Marc Polis asked why the non-sworn specialists will get less of a retention bonus than armed officers.

“They’re the future of PPB. I believe that most community members would rather have a less or a non-militarized police force,” he said.

The public safety specialists are asked to handle low-risk tasks to free officers to take emergency calls, such as accepting and retrieving found property or doing traffic control during public events or at the edge of crime scenes.

Portland resident Diane Meisenhelter said the contract appears to tip in favor of the police union, with “enormous benefits” and pay increases.

The contract allows for the city-wide expansion of the Portland Street Response program, which dispatches a mental health worker and fire paramedic to crisis calls. It calls for a committee of members pulled from each public safety agency and the union to agree on protocols for when the Street Response teams will be called out and to what types of calls. The expansion will not lead to any reduction in police jobs, the contract says.

New language also opens the door for someone who is not a sworn officer to compel another officer to be interviewed as part of an internal investigation once a new community board is in place to oversee police.

But the police union can still challenge the scope and operations of the still-undefined community board, and the city has acknowledged it will comply with any bargaining obligations.

The city and police union also have not reached agreement on a body camera policy for officers, which alone could end up before an arbitrator if no resolution is reached, according to Steven Schuback, the lead negotiator hired by the city.

Dan Handelman of the local watchdog group Portland Copwatch said the council “kicked the can” on a police camera policy while rushing last week to seek vendor bids on equipment for a pilot project.

He said the process of contract negotiations and the outcome has showed the “unchanging political power” of the police union. While the community sat in on city-hosted talks for the first five months, once the talks went to mediation, the negotiations were done behind closed doors, he noted.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the most vocal police reform advocate on the council, said the contract process this time was “100 times better” than in 2016.

That year tumult ensued as police shoved protesters out of City Hall, dousing some with pepper spray, and then-Mayor Charlie Hales and the council moved to a smaller meeting room cordoned off from the general public and protesters to vote 3-1 in support of the controversial contract.

Hardesty said that incident motivated her to run for a seat on the council.

The controversy then was over a draft body camera policy that would have allowed officers to review footage before being interviewed in police shootings or use of deadly force. This remains a key sticking point today.

Commissioner Carmen Rubio said she knows the contract is “not the panacea” for fixing all things, “but it gets us moving forward.”

The Portland Police Association ratified the contract at midnight Wednesday. Nearly 90% of the union’s 881 members voted, and of those, 96% voted in support, according to Sgt. Aaron Schmautz, the union president.

He said the contract “invests in our members and the work they do,” while also demonstrating officers’ commitment to a “fair and balanced system of accountability.”

The council will vote on the contract at a 2 p.m. meeting next Thursday. The mayor and Hardesty will hold a Zoom listening session Wednesday night at 6 p.m.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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