Despite Deep Misgivings, City Council Approves Federal Settlement on Police, Mental Health Reforms



In a perfunctory decision that felt anti-climactic after two lengthy press conferences and then a pair of marathon public hearings, the Portland City Council this afternoon officially—and unanimously—put its stamp on a controversial legal agreement meant to answer findings from the US Department of Justice that our cops use excessive force against the mentally ill.

But that vote—as foreshadowed in this week's paper—came despite some major misgivings by city commissioners who fretted about the $5.4 million annual cost of the deal, a closed-door negotiating process that left many advocates feeling shut out, the prioritization of reaction instead of prevention, and timelines and expectations that may prove unrealistic.

It was no coincidence that the three commissioners who aired their doubts were the ones who will be overseeing the document after Adams and his ally, Randy Leonard, depart council at the end of the year.

"We are locking ourselves into some commitments and expenditures at the wrong end of the problem," said Commissioner Nick Fish. "Given what we're forecasting as the next gap in our budget [$24.5 million], given the inadequate resources in prevention and addressing problems before they result in tragedy, I have a real concern in committing long-term money this way....

"I'm also concerned about people who have fundamentally questioned our approach," Fish added, "which is well-intentioned but might be adding more layers" to a police accountability system already described, by the feds, as unwieldy, "Byzantine," and ineffective.

Fish followed Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who said she combed through all the testimony at previous hearings and said that although the agreement is "changing the culture of the way we do things in Portland," that "some of the timelines are overly ambitious." She was referring to concerns that a new 21-day window for citizen appeals of misconduct cases would harm, not help, the public.

And Commissioner Dan Saltzman followed Fish by asking if the money spent in the deal was really necessary, or if the same aims—better and more proactive treatment of those who have mental illness and much speedier handling of misconduct claims that currently last more than a year, on average—could be handled without adding the dozens of positions the agreement calls for.

"That I don't know," he said. "And that's one of the questions I have."

All three stopped well short of heaping any criticism on Adams or his staff, who handled negotiations on the arrangement.

Adams argued that he managed to hold down costs during discussions with the feds, noting far more expensive police settlements in places like New Orleans and Seattle. Adams also noted a second proposal, due for a vote tomorrow, on a new phone tax plan meant to gin up most of the ongoing cash required by the deal.

"Time will tell where needed improvements to those original assumptions will be made," he said. "That can only come from experience."

Implementing the settlement, he said, will "require more than just the successful reform of the Portland Police Bureau. It will require a fundamental change of the way we as a city look at mental illness and the way we as a city treat those suffering from a mental illness. Or, I should say, how we don't provide treatment for those suffering from a mental illness."

Critics of the deal—which makes big promises for improvements in the region's mental health care system, as well as in police training, oversight, and use of force—were hoping to get one more chance to sound off this afternoon. But as is the council's custom, because the item was up for a vote and had been aired in two previous hearings, no further testimony was allowed.

Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, also a member of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform's steering committee, handed out a list of 26 recommendations made by the AMA and noted that fewer than half were accepted in full or in part, while 17 were ignored.

Adams unveiled a series of changes minutes before a hearing last week—giving advocates no time to study them before speaking, and giving them just a few days to submit written remarks. Handelman remains troubled that only the council and the feds—not the citizens—will have the right to go to court and accuse either party of failing to live up to the agreement. He also wondered why commissioners, if they had reservations, didn't assert them more forcefully. It's worth pointing out that Adams is leaving office in mere weeks and needs their support for his remaining list of projects more than commissioners need his.

"It didn't have to be a unanimous vote," Handelman says.

His group joined other advocates, including the League of Women Voters and attorney Tom Steenson, in sending comments before the vote that went unremarked upon. Absent even stronger provisions calling for independent civilian investigations of police officers, stricter limits on the use of force, and clear provisions for the dismissal of officers, they have little faith in the changes Adams is promising.

"It's interesting the council talked only about oversight. Oversight and mental health," Steenson said after the meeting, making the point that changes to the bureau's force policies will be left to bureau brass. "They didn't talk about use of force. The reason this is happening is the Department of Justice found the police engage in a pattern or practice of using excessive force... Mentally ill people are not being killed because they're mentally ill. They're being killed because police officers use too much force. The core issue is the use of excessive force."

What's next is unclear—when will a judge sign off? what about lingering use of force policy changes that need federal approval?—but I've got some questions into the mayor's office in hopes of changing that. The vote wasn't classified as an emergency, which ought to mean it won't become official for 30 more days.


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