Oregon Lawmakers OK Police Accountability Measures, But Face Calls For Bigger Change
Oregon lawmakers hope they are on the brink of ushering the state into a new era of policing oversight, accountability and equity. Among the more than dozen bills being considered are new laws to establish a statewide database of police misconduct, require police departments to submit data to the FBI’s use-of-force database and limit arbitrator decisions in police misconduct cases.
Oregon lawmakers hope they are on the brink of ushering the state into a new era of policing oversight, accountability and equity.
Among the more than dozen bills being considered are new laws to establish a statewide database of police misconduct, require police departments to submit data to the FBI’s use-of-force database and limit arbitrator decisions in police misconduct cases.
Legislators in the House passed nine bills Monday. The bills are:
- HB 3164: Modifies the crime of interfering with a peace officer or parole and probation officer and clarifies that it does not apply to passive resistance.
- HB 3273: Prohibits law enforcement agencies from releasing booking photos except in some circumstances, such as to the person in the photo, to another law enforcement agency, if it is necessary to help catch a fugitive or if the person in the photo is convicted.
- HB 2986: Adds “gender” to the list of bias crimes officers must be trained to investigate, identify and report.
- HB 2513: Requires police officers to be trained in airway and circulatory anatomy and physiology and certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and requires officers to immediately request medical assistance for a restrained person experiencing respiratory or cardiac difficulties. This law was proposed by Tigard Mayor Jason Snider, a former paramedic, who said he regularly had to ask officers to reposition restrained patients so that he could better manage their airway.
- HB 3047: Establishes civil penalties for improper disclosure of personal information, commonly known as “doxxing.”
- HB 3059: Modifies the unlawful assembly law so that officers are no longer required to arrest people who don’t comply with dispersal orders.
- HB 3355: Specifies identification required on uniforms of law enforcement officers working in crowd management in cities with a population over 150,000. After some officers’ personal information was made public, the Portland Police Bureau authorized its officers to cover their names during protest response last year. Civil liberties groups have argued the practice makes it impossible to identify officers, essentially preventing accountability.
- HB 2936: Requires Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to create a uniform, statewide background check process for law enforcement agencies. Prohibits racist behavior and requires law enforcement agencies to report evidence of racist behavior to the District Attorney. The bill exempts law enforcement units from a prohibition on employer access to personal social media accounts.
- HB 2929: Adds to a law passed in June requiring officers to intervene and report any behavior they know, or reasonably should know, to be misconduct to a superior or DPSST within 72 hours. This bill adds violations of minimum standards for physical, emotional, intellectual and moral fitness to the reporting requirements.
“I know that these problems didn’t start yesterday,” said Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas. She chairs the House Committee on Equitable Policing and has led the Herculean legislative effort. “They’re longstanding problems that for whatever political reasons haven’t been resolved, and here we are in this moment, with a great opportunity to take bolder steps forward,” she said.
This isn’t the first swing the legislature has taken at providing more civilian oversight of police since racial justice protests erupted across the country after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in May 2020.
A month after the murder, Oregon lawmakers passed six new laws aimed at changing the way police do their jobs. Among them were bills limiting an arbitrator’s leeway to change discipline, banning chokeholds except in instances when deadly use-of-force is authorized by directives and requiring officers to intervene or report a fellow officer’s misconduct.
In a departure from Salem’s recent legislative gridlock, the bills have so far enjoyed broad bipartisan support. But some activists who have spent years fighting for more police accountability and racial justice say the steps being taken aren’t bold enough.
“We’ve opened up a new consciousness,” said the Rev. LeRoy Haynes, a civil rights advocate and co-chair of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform. “But the status quo remains the same.”
Haynes, whose civil rights activism began when he was 13 and a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, said other state legislatures are going much bigger by doing things like revoking qualified immunity, a policy that makes it nearly impossible to bring civil lawsuits against police officers. He would like to see Oregon do the same.
“When you compare it to what has been done in the past, it is a significant amount of bills coming out of the state legislature,” he said. “But compared to some of the other states, it’s still very, very moderate.”
Bynum agrees, and says no one should be complacent or stop demanding change from their legislators. But she also said that in trying to move 91 people – members of the House, Senate and the governor – she’s trying to thread a delicate political needle. Adding to her sense of urgency are the realities of being a Black mom with a “headstrong” teenage son.
“I hear my colleagues talking about their teenage kids with a level of freedom that I can’t provide to my son,” she said. “He thinks he has it, but my husband and I often talk about, ‘Are we selling him a dream that isn’t real?’ How hard do we parent to tell him that he just doesn’t get this same ability to make the same mistakes without the potential for deadly consequences?”
Building a bipartisan coalition and taking full advantage of the moment has meant tradeoffs – in some cases, big ones. A bill requiring all law enforcement agencies in the state to report use-of-force incidents that result in someone dying, being seriously injured or a firearm being discharged to an FBI database started out much different. But the fate of the original bill, which would have created a publicly accessible database and included more comprehensive reporting requirements is uncertain. Bynum said it will survive if it’s feasible to funnel federal reporting through the state’s Criminal Justice Commission.
“I tried to create that space where [people in law enforcement] could come forward in a safe way and tell me, ‘you need to change this provision or that provision,’” she said. “Ultimately that sets us up for the subsequent work that we have to continue to do. It’s not a one and done.”
Working alongside Bynum was Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, a former police chief.
“All of these bills here, really they’re bipartisan because it’s an effort to raise the bar a little bit, [while] trying to minimize any unintended consequences to safety,” Noble said.
When a police officer is disciplined, most union contracts allow that officer to appeal the decision to an outside arbitrator, whose rulings are binding. Noble said that system is set up to make everyone involved feel like they got something. The net effect is that it can be nearly impossible to terminate an officer.
In one high profile Oregon case, Portland Police Officer Ronald Frashour was fired for shooting and killing Aaron Campbell in 2010. Frashour shot Campbell, an unarmed Black man, in the back, prompting then-Portland Police Chief Mike Reese to find that it was unreasonable for Frashour to have seen Campbell as an immediate threat.
An arbitrator overturned Frashour’s firing, and he was reinstated.
Police officers are given enormous responsibilities that may result in people losing their freedom or their lives, Noble said. But applicable labor law doesn’t allow officers to be held to a high standard.
“Sometimes you do need to terminate employment,” he said. “Sometimes the job is no longer right for individuals. The difficult part is when the system is not set up to provide that opportunity.”
Part of what the equitable policing committee set out to do was establish statewide police conduct standards for the nearly 180 law enforcement agencies in the state. Bills standardizing the background check process, requiring first aid and bias crime training and barring interfering with a police officer charges for passive resistance are all part of that effort, Noble said.
The current law describing unlawful assemblies requires officers to arrest people who don’t disperse when told to do so.
The requirement to make arrests is problematic because failing to disperse is not a crime. That’s one reason why, over the past year, police departments in Portland, Salem, Eugene and elsewhere have made hundreds of arrests for interfering with a peace officer only to see a large number of charges dropped.
“We’re getting rid of ‘must,’” Noble said. “So there is no state mandate or statute that says you have to go do something. It allows you to assess, it allows you to maybe choose not to act and maybe not have to arrest people because no longer is it required.”
Bynum said the committee took a system-wide approach in tackling changes to police accountability in the state. House Bill 2936, which would strengthen the background check process and allow personal social media accounts to be screened, will help agencies better weed out unqualified applicants. Once an officer is hired, a new statewide database tracking officer discipline will help ensure officers with problematic records don’t skate by unnoticed. And finally, changes to the arbitration process will strengthen leadership’s ability to discipline and fire officers.
“Would we be talking about George Floyd and this trial if we had an early warning system that works? If we had an arbitration system that works? If we had a use of force system that works?” Bynum asked.
After a year of protests against systemic racism and police violence saw cities blanketed in tear gas and crowds of thousands dispersed with less lethal impact munitions, Oregon lawmakers are hoping to regulate their use. But civil rights activists may find the final bill disappointing.
House Bill 2928 says police can’t use tear gas “except when one or more individuals in the crowd have engaged in conduct otherwise justifying the use of physical force by a peace officer.”
The law would also bar officers from firing less lethal munitions at a person’s head unless lethal force is justified.
Both changes are in line with existing Portland Police Bureau directives.
Earlier versions of the bill allowed for civil lawsuits against cities and law enforcement agencies as well as individual officers. But that language was stripped out in the final version to the dismay of some on the Equitable Policing subcommittee.
“I’d like to state my concern with maintaining the immunity for the actions that they take during a riot or incident,” said Rep. Marty Wilde, D- Central Lane and Linn Counties, during a recent legislative work session. “Retaining a blanket immunity that was, frankly, probably never intended to be granted in the way it’s been used is concerning to me.”
Haynes, the pastor and longtime civil rights advocate, said legislators have a rare opportunity that they aren’t fully leveraging.
“The Germans called it ‘zeitgeist’, the spirit of the time,” Haynes said. “This is the time when the masses of the people want the reckoning to take place. You have to move when the opportunity is there.”
Haynes said the door of opportunity only opens once in a great while.
“You have to move when the opportunity is there,” he said. “Try to get everything you can because that opportunity door is not going to always stay open.”
Bynum, whose own mom has even thrown a little shade her way for not moving fast enough, said the work speaks for itself.
“Somebody else, maybe they’re more effective, they should give it a shot,” she said. “But nobody else has been able to do this for 40 years.”
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting.