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Body cams for Portland police part of tentative pact with feds on reforms

The agreement will open the city to at least another three years of monitoring by the Justice Department

By Maxine Bernstein

PORTLAND, Ore. — The city of Portland and the U.S. Department of Justice have reached a tentative agreement on more changes – including equipping officers with body cameras – to meet the demands of a 2014 settlement designed to curb police use of excessive force.

The agreement will open the city to at least another three years of monitoring by the Justice Department to ensure a voter-approved community oversight system of police actually works. Residents overwhelmingly endorsed the system last year but it’s still in the very early planning stage.

The Justice Department in April issued a formal notice to the city that it had failed to meet key reforms under the settlement, citing inappropriate police use and management of force during last year’s racial justice protests, inadequate training and subpar supervision by higher-ups.

The city has agreed to most of the remedies sought by federal lawyers.

Some community activists who have been parties to the settlement say they don’t go far enough. They’re concerned, for example, that the latest agreement doesn’t require police to bar officers from previewing body camera footage before giving a statement to investigators after using deadly force.

All sides will be back before U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon on Tuesday morning to report on the status of the tentative agreement. It follows five mediation sessions held before U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman this fall.

The City Council and the court must formally approve and adopt the agreement as an amendment to the settlement.

The settlement, approved by Simon seven years ago, followed a federal investigation that found Portland officers used excessive force against people with mental illness. It called for widespread changes to use-of-force and Taser policies, training, supervision and oversight, a restructuring of police crisis intervention services and quicker investigations into alleged police misconduct.

The Portland Police Association, city attorney and Justice Department lawyers have signed the tentative agreement. It’s expected to go before the City Council in December.

The body camera policy and how the city transitions to the new police accountability system proved to be the more contentious areas during mediation. While the city agreed to make the changes, it didn’t admit that it had failed to meet the settlement requirements.

Under the tentative agreement, the city would:

  • Adopt and put in place a body camera program with a policy that complies with the city’s bargaining obligations with the police union but also is reviewed and approved by the Justice Department. The city must start the program within 210 days of the court approving the agreement.

If the Justice Department doesn’t approve of the program or policies, the Justice Department can take the city straight to court to seek enforcement.

  • Fund an outside consultant to review Portland police use of force and response to protests in 2020 and use the findings to help identify training needs for officers.
  • Fund and hire a civilian dean of police training.
  • Ensure officer reports on force and after-action reviews by supervisors show who wrote each report and review with all dates and times noted.
  • Have the city’s Independent Police Review office investigate and identify any lieutenants or supervisors of higher rank from the specialized crowd control Rapid Response Team who directed or allowed officers to violate the bureau’s force policy and failed to ensure officers and supervisors completed required use-of-force reports or reviews from May 29 through Nov. 16, 2020. Once the supervisors are identified, the police chief and police commissioner would hold them accountable for violating any bureau policies on use of force.

Portland police used force more than 6,000 times during those months, according to the Justice Department. Police sometimes targeted people who attended protests but weren’t involved in any violence or focused on people simply because they were slow-walking away when ordered to leave, the Justice Department previously reported.

Federal lawyers also highlighted the repeated “misunderstanding of constitutional limits on force,” with officers conflating active versus passive resistance as the basis for firing rubber bullets and other less-lethal impact munitions during the protests. Supervisors frequently failed to investigate or analyze their officers’ use of force and gave blanket approval of force with no real analysis, they found.

  • Have the City Council and city auditor each draft and give the Justice Department their plans on how the city will transition from the Independent Police Review office to the voter-approved Community Police Oversight Board.

The city will adopt whichever plan the Justice Department deems acceptable.

The auditor has pushed the city to make sure the Independent Police Review staff and supervisors are guaranteed their jobs or other city jobs in the future to encourage them not to leave before the new board is in place and operating.

  • Identify the overtime costs that stem from training police in annual police budgets.
  • Share bureau’s annual report with community members in each of the bureau’s patrol precincts.

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