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Hall Monitor

To Be or Not to Be... Silent

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IT SEEMED like a promising idea when it was first pitched in March, back when the Portland City Council was agreeing to spend millions of dollars on a new, long-awaited Portland Police Bureau training center.

Packaged alongside the bureau's schematics was a promise to also improve the substance of its training regimen. The cops would create a "Training Advisory Council"—a citizen panel that would have the chief's ear and help infuse the bureau's policies with the community's values.

The bureau—still, notably, under a federal microscope for its use of force—is ready to act on that promise. Which is good. But it's also about to louse things up.

A posting for council candidates sent out by Mayor Sam Adams' office on Monday, August 20, didn't say whether the council's quarterly meetings would be public or private. And, curiously, it said chosen council members would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA)—a contract that will limit what kinds of things council members can say about their work, and to whom.

I asked the police bureau to clarify both points. I also asked to see the NDA. For instance, it's possible that the NDA would apply only to, say, confidential documents like case files and not the panel's overall work.

These aren't insignificant questions. If the meetings are private, and if council members can't discuss their work, then it's fair to ask whether the council will be a meaningful forum for improving community-police relations or mere window-dressing.

It took a while to get firm responses. But when I did finally hear back—Training Division Captain Bryan Parman called me from home just before press time—it was disappointing.

Training council meetings wouldn't be open to the public—even just to sit in and observe. Parman says members would be having "frank" discussions, hashing through and refining policy changes suggested by other community groups and police panels. He argues it would be a mistake for "half an idea" to go public before members send their final recommendations to the chief. That also means any NDA, which is still being drafted, may wind up being fairly restrictive.

"It would be counterproductive to what we're trying to do," he says.

Instead, he offered, members would be allowed to talk only generally about the subjects they're tackling. They could talk more freely, in a postmortem, about the ideas after they're on the chief's desk and discuss them in periodic public reports.

Other details are troubling. Parman confirmed that some police staffers would also be voting members of the panel—and that other cops would be sitting in as expert advisors. He also said there wasn't a target number of citizen members yet because the bureau wasn't sure how many people would be interested in joining.

Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, a longtime observer and critic of police training, had lamented the secrecy and warned advocates to stay away even before hearing what Parman had to say. Afterward, he said he hoped the mayor would step in.

"They're not ready to be transparent," he told me. "They're not ready to take advice from the public. They're not ready for civilian oversight."

I can understand why some things—state secrets, confidential case files—might stay off limits. But getting a glimpse at what this group is doing, and in real time, is too important to sacrifice in the name of efficiency. The meetings should be open. Let's hope the mayor agrees.

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