Proponents of police reform see promise in agreement that includes police discipline guide.
By Saundra Sorenson, The Skanner News
After a year of negotiation and eight months after deadline, the city of Portland and the union representing the city’s police officers have tentatively agreed on a contract.
Amid ongoing community outcry for police transparency and accountability, the updated contract with the Portland Police Association (PPA) includes employee recruitment and retention bonuses, incentives for continued education, expansion of the Portland Street Response program, and the creation of a voter-approved independent oversight board-– one that may have more clout due to the inclusion of the Portland Police Bureau’s discipline guide within the contract itself.
“I made a promise to Portlanders we were going to do this contract differently,” Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty said in a statement. “Over the last three years, we took in significant community input, provided as much transparency as labor law allowed, hired outside legal counsel with expertise in police union contracts, and now we have real change. This includes the ability to continue our expansion of Portland Street Response citywide and creating a clear, fair discipline guide to provide accountability for police misconduct. While no single contract negotiation will bring about all the changes I personally would like to see, I’m proud that my office’s deep engagement led to a better process and outcomes.”
The contract must be renewed every four years. The previous contract term was a particularly eventful one that saw four police chiefs, more than 100 nights of historic protests against police brutality over the summer of 2020, the removal of school resource officers from Portland-area public campuses, a spate of police reform bills passed in the state legislature, and the surprise resignation of Portland Police Association president Brian Hunzeker after news of false accusations against City Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty were leaked to the press (https://www.theskanner.com/news/northwest/31083-falsely-accused-of-hit-and-run-commissioner-jo-ann-hardesty-looks-for-redress). Amid calls from the community and Hardesty to defund the police by $50 million, the city council cut $15 million from the department’s budget in 2020. Last November, the city experienced an unexpected budget surplus and voted to add $5.2 million back to the department.
The most recent round of contract negotiations has been marked by concerns over falling recruitment numbers and the city’s insistence on language inclusive of Measure 26-217, which established a new, independent community oversight board empowered to discipline and potentially fire officers. The measure also stipulates that if PPB were to reject a policy suggested by the board, the board could then appeal to the city council to vote to implement the policy.
Although the council voted in favor of a program that would require police to wear body cameras on-duty, the city and PPA agreed it was too early to include the plan in a contract, opting to hammer out details at a later date.
In addition, the contract allows for an expansion of Portland Street Response, a program piloted last year that sends unarmed medical and mental health first responders on calls where mental health crises or substance abuse are involved. The program will go citywide, and with an increased budget, PSR is projected to divert about 5% of calls normally answered by PPB. Portland Street Response responders and police will also be able to work together on calls.
“This contract heralds a new era of partnership between the City and the Portland Police Association, one that is critical in addressing the public safety challenges before us today,” Commissioner Mingus Mapps said in a statement. “The Letter of Agreement on Portland Street Response brings our operational experts to the table to determine how best to ensure that the city sends the correct emergency response to people in mental health crises. I’m pleased that the Bureau of Emergency Communications will continue to inform the city’s strategy along with the police bureau and fire and rescue, and that we are reducing the role of politics in this process.”
“Adopting a new discipline guide and defining and empowering Portland Street Response’s role in our first responder system are tangible results that happened in bargaining,” Commissioner Dan Ryan said. “This is an incredible milestone.”
In the updated contract, new police recruits would be given a $5,000 hiring bonus and current officers would receive the same amount during the first pay period after the contract takes effect, and an additional $2,000 if they remain at the bureau through January 2024; other PPB employees would be eligible for a $3,000 retention bonus.
“It is important to me that we are able to attract and keep quality police officers and that we have a discipline guide that ensures our officers are held accountable for their actions,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement announcing the tentative contract agreement.
There are police staffing shortages nationwide. Studies of the drop in recruitment numbers point out that public perception of law enforcement has diminished sharply in recent years with high-profile police killings and strong Black Lives Matter protests in response. Many experts point to the police shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 as a catalyzing moment that led to more widespread criticism of the culture around law enforcement.
Not everyone agreed that recruitment incentives should take priority.
“I think that recruiting into the PPB without addressing the heart of the cultural problems that PPB has, and therefore has led to the lack of trust the community has in them, that’s not going to solve the problem the community is asking them to,” Portland Citizen Review Committee Chair Candace Avalos told The Skanner.
“What I really want to see is more money in Portland Street Response, violence prevention, in helping the economic prosperity of especially young Portlanders,” she said. “Those are the things I think are going to solve the larger systemic problems that have resulted in the prison pipeline that have (derailed) people’s futures. Putting more funds into archaic and draconian systems does not feel like the right answer.”
Avalos was in agreement with the city that including the PPB discipline guide in the contract was a significant step forward.
“In the contract it’s not just an arbitrary document that can or cannot be used,” Avalos said. “I think it’s giving more oversight power. I think that it’s a strong sign that we got some wins in the contract.”
The discipline guide outlines tiers of the bureau’s response to officer infractions, from non-disciplinary command counseling to a letter of reprimand, then suspension, demotion or termination. The most serious category, termination without mitigation, would apply to felony crime convictions or “felonious conduct,” domestic violence, “untruthfulness,” public corruption for monetary gain, use of deadly force that is outside of police policy, and “intentional misuse of police authority based on protected class status.”
“The new contract makes great strides in transparency and accountability by providing a discipline guide that reflects community concerns,” commissioner Carmen Rubio said in a statement.
Included in the contract is a rubric-style points system for aggravating factors around an officer’s offense, as well as mitigating factors – steps the officer may have taken to course-correct – that are tallied to determine disciplinary action.
“The new discipline guide established by this contract sets the standard for officer accountability by creating clarity and consistency around the assignment of discipline, and includes education-based alternatives so officers are not just penalized but can learn from their mistakes,” Mapps said. “This guide is an essential tool for the effectiveness of the future community oversight board.”
‘Consequences With Teeth’
Despite the push for accountability, some prominent voices felt excluded from the collective bargaining table.
In June, PPA moved negotiations into mediation, a more hard-ball approach that took the proceedings completely out of the public eye. Although the PPA said in a recent statement all stakeholders had collaborated on the contract, Avalos told The Skanner her group, whose volunteer members are appointed by city council, was never consulted.
“As far as the contract goes, it’s been a mystery for many of us,” Avalos said. “We don’t really know what’s going on. I feel like I’ve been in the dark, and everyone’s been really tight-lipped about it…PCRC (members) did not feel they were consulted or involved in the larger vision of what the contract entails.”
Still, Avalos saw promise for additional police reform.
“I’m definitely optimistic about the new oversight board,” she said. “Honestly, we have to be, because that’s a really important step as we continue to reshape what community safety means for us. This aspect of police accountability has to exist. I know there are people that want to move away from the police as an institution, but until then, we need to make sure that when harm is caused, there are consequences and those consequences have teeth.”
The city council will hear public testimony on the contract Feb. 16 at 4 p.m., with a final vote planned during the Feb. 24 council session.