Portland’s mayor proposes hiatus for police oversight group due to vacancies
The group has only about half its seats filled and “is in a crisis right now,” said one member
By Maxine Bernstein
PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland’s mayor Wednesday night proposed that the city’s community police oversight committee go on a two-month hiatus to figure out how to fill nearly half of the group’s vacancies and hire more staff to help support the group.
The idea comes five years after the predecessor of the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing was disbanded due to lack of training for its members, lack of city support and dwindling membership.
The problems now plaguing the current committee are eerily similar.
The 13-member group has only seven seats filled. There’s a lack of city staff to support or facilitate its meetings. Some members appointed to the group complained of a lack of training before they began their service. Others identified a lack of cohesiveness and direction amid the group resulting from a structural change in the past year that eliminated a chair and co-chair and instead relied on at least four chairpeople heading separate subcommittees.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, appearing before the committee by video conference, suggested the group “take a breather,” for 60 days to allow Mike Myers, the city’s community safety transition director, to work to hire adequate administrative support staff, provide more rigorous training and find strong facilitators “to make it successful.”
Committee members had mixed reactions.
Member Ann Campbell said taking a 60-day break would be “very, very concerning” due to the “lack of community voices” on police oversight for that period of time.
The committee, she said, “is in a crisis right now.”
Member Zeenab Fowlk said she’s been concerned about “less police engagement” at committee meetings and the lack of facilitators to help guide the group’s work.
Fowlk said she’s worried that a two-month suspension of meetings would cause the “whole structure” to “fall apart,” as the group’s predecessor did. She said she’d hope any break in committee action would be used to help “build this back up again,” and urged retreats for committee members to help foster better relationships with one another.
Member Amy Anderson called the decision to get rid of a chair and co-chair a “bad idea.” The committee also has suffered because not all members received the same training when they were appointed to serve on the group, she added.
Dan Handelman, who attended the meeting as leader of the watchdog group Portland Copwatch, said he’d hate to see the committee stop meeting “just like the other one.”
The committee’s predecessor, the Community Oversight Advisory Board, also was put on a two-month hiatus in 2016 before it was completely disbanded. The city was without community oversight of police reforms for almost two years once the initial board dissolved amid acrimony and an exodus of leaders and members.
In November 2018, this second iteration - the Portland Committee on Community Engaged Policing - was created and held its first meeting.
The committee is a key part of the settlement agreement reached between the city and U.S. Department of Justice that followed federal investigators’ findings in 2012 that Portland officers too often used excessive force on people suffering from mental illness. It called for significant changes to police policies, training and oversight and was adopted by U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon in 2014.
Former committee co-chair Elliott Young said many of the committee’s challenges are not new.
Young said when he left the committee in August he spoke to the mayor about the problem of retaining and recruiting members and inadequate staff support. “It’s surprising to me there wasn’t a plan in place from back then for improving staffing,” he said.
Sam Adams, a member of Wheeler’s staff who had negotiated the city’s settlement with the Justice Department when he was mayor, told the group that Wheeler will make a decision early next week. Adams said he had recommended the 60-day break for the committee.
“”The disruption is not ideal, but we don’t have the staff to staff,” Adams told the committee. ”We need to take this pause to regroup and come back to do a better job in providing what you need to be successful.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Hager said it’s certainly not lost on the U.S Department of Justice that the very same problems that led to the first community board’s failure is plaguing this committee: attrition, lapses in appointing new members, inadequate training and administrative support.
“To have those problems repeat is a serious concern,” he said.
Hager said it appeared the “wheels were coming off’’ for the committee right after Judge Simon gave his approval last year for this second iteration of community oversight. City and Justice officials return to court on April 29 to seek the judge’s approval for other remedies the city, which remains out of compliance with the settlement agreement, has agreed to adopt.
Hager added that the Justice Department is willing to work with the city and the oversight committee to help members understand its mission and provide additional training.
The Justice Department wants the committee to provide independent oversight of the settlement reforms, review police policies and help the Police Bureau build an effective community-engagement plan, he said.
“The end goal is good community engagement and increased trust between the public and the bureau,” Hager said.
After more than two hours of discussion, committee members questioned if the decision to halt their meetings for a period of time is out of their hands.
“This meeting has been very confusing, I’ll be honest with you,” Fowlk said. “I don’t know really where we are.”
Long after the mayor left the meeting, the committee ultimately voted 5 to 1, with one member abstaining, not to suspend its activity for 60 days.
The members still questioned if the vote will have any impact, since its videoconference meetings and other work are supported by city staff.
“It may not do anything,” conceded committee member Gloria Canson, “but at least we go on record, of at least having a vote and not agreeing with the hiatus. We stood and had a vote. We did that.”
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