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Oregon Legislative Session On Police Accountability Coming Soon

Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, attends an Oregon House session on Monday, April 29, 2019, in Salem.
Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, attends an Oregon House session on Monday, April 29, 2019, in Salem.

Oregon prosecutors have now joined the call for a bill to help discipline against officers stick. The governor plans to call a special session to take up the police accountability legislation.

Momentum is growing for Oregon lawmakers to pass new police accountability legislation this summer in a special legislative session, as widespread protests against racial injustice and police brutality continue across the state and nation.

On Thursday, state prosecutors added their support for a bill that would help ensure disciplinary actions against officers cannot be later reversed by an outside arbitrator. The Oregon District Attorneys’ Association now joins state police chiefs, sheriffs and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in urging Gov. Kate Brown to convene a special session to pass the bill, which has twice failed in regular legislative sessions.

“Over the past two weeks, we have watched our nation and state slowly step up to engage in a conversation that is long overdue,” Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Happy Valley Democrat and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “We are asking ourselves: How do we hold the people charged with protecting our communities to account? How do we end state-sanctioned violence against Black and brown people? How do we begin to understand another person’s pain when it seems so far from us?”

Bynum and other members of Oregon’s all-Democrat People of Color Caucus joined three Republicans in asking Gov. Kate Brown to convene a session to pass the bill within 30 days. In fact, it may come well sooner.

The governor “agrees that the Legislature should pass it in short order, and she is preparing to call a special session to take up this bill among others,” Charles Boyle, a press secretary in the governor’s office, said in an email. “The Governor is working with legislative leadership to finalize a plan and timeline for the upcoming special session, and we anticipate an announcement on that front in the next few days.”

The bill with the most backing headed into that session has been a long-time goal of the city of Portland, and introduced repeatedly by state Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland. It would ensure that outside arbitrators can’t overturn disciplinary actions against police officers if they concur that misconduct occurred, and that a police department has followed its disciplinary guidelines.

The bill is designed to prevent situations where police unions take a discipline case to arbitration and succeed in having a punishment overturned or watered down, something that has been common in Portland and elsewhere.

The bill has been strenuously opposed by police unions, which argue police discipline could be left to the whims of political expediency if left unchecked. But its passage seems a foregone conclusion in the current climate: The concept has twice passed the Oregon Senate with unanimous support, and now leaders in both chambers back it.

“I’m all in,” House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said in a tweet Thursday. “Let’s get to work and make this happen.”

Republicans also are primed to support the measure. A trio of GOP legislators — Reps. Ron Noble and Rick Lewis, and Sen. Lynn Findley — issued a joint statement Thursday calling for its passage.

“We are proud to stand with our fellow legislators in calling for accountability and professionalism required of our law enforcement officers,” they said. “Now, more than ever before, we stand with Oregonians who want us to lead the nation in public safety policies and ensure justice is served by only those who are fit to wear the badge.”

The bill is likely far from the only thing lawmakers would discuss in a special session.

The legislative People Of Color Caucus, made up of nine Democratic lawmakers, is also pressing a bill that would require the Oregon Department of Justice to lead the way on investigations into police shootings and other deaths at the hands of officers. That concept was introduced in 2019, but failed even to get a hearing.

Lawmakers also expect to make tough budgetary decisions, stemming from an unprecedented drop in tax revenues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. According to recent economic forecasts, the state is expecting to bring in $2.7 billion less in the current two-year budget period than was predicted in March.

The Legislature’s chief budget writers have been working behind closed doors on a proposal for how to close that gap — likely via a mix of cost cutting, spending down budget reserves, federal aid, and, potentially, raising certain taxes.

It’s not clear whether those budget discussions would be held during the special session Brown is preparing to announce, or reserved for another time.

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Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.