Feds, Portland Police Announce Final Package of Reforms

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Building on last month's scathing federal report that found Portland police officers have used excessive force against the mentally ill, the US Department of Justice and city officials today unveiled a final package of reforms that aims to significantly expand civilian oversight of the bureau, add mental health treatment and training, tighten policies on the use of force, and dramatically speed up misconduct investigations.

The changes will happen quickly—some as soon as 90 days. The city council is expected to vote on the reform package (PDF) this Thursday, allowing the US District Court in Oregon to dismiss the feds' case against the city, with prejudice, and the settlement deal to be put in place.

Almost immediately, the council will seek out three applicants to serve as an independent community liaison/compliance officer, a post that will oversee a 15-member oversight board (of which five members would be nominated citywide). That post will not serve as a monitor with court-bestowed powers, officials say. Rather, that person will report quarterly to the feds and to the public, with the feds responsible for taking action if Portland fails to live up to the agreement's promises.

Some of those changes have been dripping out in recent weeks. Delivering on that promise, however, will come with a steep financial cost. The deal calls for $3.3 million in new ongoing funding that will let the city add 32 new positions. In addition, the city's Service Coordination Team will no longer be funded year by year, but also be converted to an ongoing expense. Hundreds of thousands in start-up costs also must be funded.

"No, I've not figured out yet how to pay for it," Mayor Sam Adams said at the press conference. "But I will. First we had to get the agreement settled."

MENTAL HEALTH

A key piece of the deal required buy-in not only from the feds and the cops, but also the city's healthcare industry. The Community Care Organizations tasked with implementing federal health care reform in Oregon have promised to add, by mid-2013, one or more centers where cops can drop off people in crisis, or where members of the public dealing with mental health and addiction issues could walk in.

That's sooner, Adams says, than the CCOs otherwise would have moved. CCOs also will work with the city and Multnomah County to improve treatment in clinics and emergency rooms.

"It's a burden, and it's also an opportunity," says Commissioner Amanda Fritz, whom Adams says was charged with working through health issues.

• Mental health changes also include the previously reported return of the bureau's specialized Crisis Intervention Team. The team will work 24/7, be called to mental health calls in place of other officers, and receive extra training. The team will serve as an overlay atop the current baseline crisis training provided to every officer at police academy.

• The bureau also is committing to an expansion of its Project Respond partnership in which one cop and one mental health professional are paired for a proactive day-shift patrol in Central Precinct. Two more patrols will be added. The region's 911 dispatchers will also be trained to better handle crisis calls.

• A new unit, the Addictions and Behavioral Health Unit, will be created within the next two months and given power over those mobile crisis units, the new crisis team and the Service Coordination Team. That team will work alongside an advisory council made up of medical professionals and mental health advocates.

OUTREACH AND OVERSIGHT

But some of the most important and far-reaching changes in the deal impact the level of civilian involvement in Portland police oversight and how swiftly complaints are handled. Citizen groups have long demanded more power, more eyes, more weight in discipline cases and have complained that changes in recent years, while a good step, didn't go far enough.

• In force-related misconduct cases, a rotating member of the Citizen Review Committee, which normally handles policy recommendations and hears appeals of misconduct cases, will now sit as one of two civilians on the bureau's Police Review Board. (Provided that member pass a background check.) That board's findings are often the last word on misconduct cases and greatly inform discipline decisions by the police chief. The CRC will be expanded to 11 members from nine.

• The agreement itself, as mentioned earlier, will be overseen by a community liaison and a 15-member community board. Five of those members will be the city's current Human Rights Commission, which has a long history of diving into issues like racial bias within the police bureau. Five other members will be appointed, respectively, by each member of the Portland City Council. And five others will be drawn from a citywide pool of nominees and elected by attendees at a public meeting. (Five officers chosen by the police chief will also sit alongside the 15-member panel, as non-voting, advisory participants.)

• Cops involved in the use of force, or who have witnessed it, will need to give interviews on scene. But it's not clear whether or how that will supplant current labor contract provisions that say no testimony can be compelled in an internal investigation for at least 48 hours. The final language on how the bureau's interview policy will change has yet to be written. US Attorney Amanda Marshall said it will be subject to federal approval.

• Misconduct investigations must also be completed within 180 days, far shorter than the current year-plus average for most. The the police bureau's Internal Affairs team and the city's Independent Police Review office, a division of the city auditor's office, will nearly double their respective cadres of investigators. IPR investigators also will receive the right to interview officers without an IA investigator present.

• One of those new IPR investigators will be someone familiar with mental health issues, promises City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade.

USE OF FORCE AND TRAINING

Already in the past few weeks, the bureau has begun changing its use of force policies to reflect the direction of the agreement. The bureau proposed adding language stressing de-escalation and requiring officers to take into account someone's mental state when deciding on whether to get physical. The bureau also danced with changes to its Taser policy, taking steps to ban their use on passive resisters. The feds agreed to some but not all changes.

• Portland police officers will no longer be allowed to use multiple Tasers on the same person at the same time—a prohibition that wasn't in the changes floated earlier this months. Similarly, in a change pushed by the feds, cops will no longer be allowed to use consecutive Taser cycles on someone. They will be required to wait to see if the 50,000-volt shock worked before applying another. Against someone believed to be in crisis, Tasers won't be allowed except as a last resort to avoid the use of "a higher level of force."

• Data on force use will be audited, and that data will be reported publicly every three months. Internal affairs will now be notified every time serious force is used against anyone, or whenever any force is used against someone perceived to be suffering from mental illness.

• The bureau will change the way it selects its instructors on the use of force. Any officer rapped for a force complaint against someone with mental illness once in the past three years, or twice in the past five years, will be barred from ever serving as a training instructor. Training lessons will be updated to include ideas from the community and explicitly ban the use of ridiculously insensitive words like "mentals."

• The bureau's early intervention system will be beefed up so cops who use force are screened and flagged sooner than they are currently.

WHAT'S NEXT?

The terms of the deal are supposed to last five years, through October 12, 2017—which is a rough timeline for getting the reforms in place. The independent compliance officer will work alongside a liaison within the chief's office and issue quarterly reports on whether the bureau is missing or exceeding federal targets.

If the city does hit its marks sooner than that, and keeps it up for an additional year, the feds could free us sooner.

And whither the Portland Police Association? President Daryl Turner and counsel Anil Karia were in the room watching. It's possible the union can grieve some of the changes put forward or ask that they be be included in next year's contract talks. There's a provision in the deal requiring the city to notify the feds if that happens and keep them "apprised of the status of the resulting negotiations."

Joyce Harris, of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform—one of the groups that led the mayor and Commissioner Dan Saltzman to demand a federal investigation after the shooting of Aaron Campbell in 2010—also wondered about the earnestness in which the city will incorporate community feedback.

She said the process between the release of the findings in September and today's press conference wasn't as transparent as the AMA would have liked.

"We need to be a part of that, as partners," she said. "Often we come to these decisions and once we get rolling down the road, all of the sudden things fall apart. We can't let it fall apart. Because lives are at stake."

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