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Oregon Police Unions Want To Push Regulations Back On Lawmakers

Police clash with demonstrators in East Portland.
Police clash with demonstrators in East Portland.

As Oregon lawmakers continue to work up possible changes to law enforcement oversight, police unions now suggest they’ll ask voters to apply some of those same rules to lawmakers and city officials.

On Monday, a state representative and affiliates of Portland’s rank-and-file police union filed three initiative petitions aimed at the November 2022 ballot. One would require cities to plan for, and enforce restrictions on, political protests. The other two would create regulations for politicians that resemble rules for cops that have already passed or are in the works.

State Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Beaverton, Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner, and PPA Lawyer Anil Karia are the chief petitioners behind all three proposals. The efforts are backed by the Oregon Coalition of Police & Sheriffs, or ORCOPS, a lobbying group for police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

The petitions are part bargaining chip, part promise. Police unions say their fate will depend partly on what policies pass in the 2021 legislative session, along with how well they’re received in polling.

“We will be having discussions in the Legislature,” said Michael Selvaggio, a lobbyist for ORCOPS. “I could see us moving forward with one or two. I’m sure there are situations where we would pursue none of them.”

One proposal, the “End Immunity for Politicians”Act, would end qualified immunity for lawmakers and city council members in Portland, ensuring they can be personally sued for actions they take in an official capacity.

Ending qualified immunity is a concept that activists in Oregon and around the country have pushed as a necessary reform for police, arguing the threat of a lawsuit would curb officer abuses. Lawmakers have signaled they will take the subject up next year, when they plan to continue on a reform agenda that began in the two recent special sessions.

“If that’s a discussion that the Legislature wants to have, I think we’re inviting them to lead by example,” Selvaggio said Tuesday.

Barker, a former Portland police lieutenant and police union official, said ending qualified immunity could have drastic repercussions.

“The police of course are very concerned,” he said. “One thing happens and your house is gone."

Turner, the PPA president, did not return a request for comment.

Another proposal, the “Ethics in Politics” Act, would drastically reshape the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, giving it new teeth for policing lawmaker ethics including docking their pay and recommending they be removed from office. The effort also would create a requirement that lawmakers report misconduct by their colleagues, a mandate lawmakers placed on police officers in a special session earlier this year.

The third proposal would require local governments to create a “comprehensive plan” for handling political protests, and to include certain baseline standards for allowable activity. Under the proposal, governments would be required to limit noise after certain hours, and ban a wide variety of behaviors, from blocking streets to setting fires to possessing laser pointers. Plans would also include what kinds of force officers could use in responding to unlawful gatherings, and requirements for what identification officers need to show.

In a move plainly aimed at the City of Portland, cities could be held liable for property damage if they failed to enforce their own protest plans. Over months of racial justice demonstrations, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and other officials have been criticized for not adequately cracking down on problematic behavior, even as others accuse city police of instigating violence against demonstrators.

Selvaggio insists that any and all of these proposals are on the table.

“I was very pointed with my chief sponsors” he said. “If we’re going to file these, these can’t just be a paper tiger where we submit a bunch of initiatives and they grow mold.”

In order to proceed with the petitions, backers will first need to collect 1,000 valid signatures for each, an effort Selvaggio said is likely to be carried out by volunteers. Separate political committees are already being created for all three petitions, and seed money will be kicked in by ORCOPS.

In order to qualify for the November 2022 ballot, the petitions would need to collect a little more than 112,000 signatures.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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.