Over 1,000 people gathered at Portland City Hall on June 3 to demand an end to institutional racism and police brutality. The City Council is now scrutinizing the city’s police policies and procedures. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Portland city councilors began the gargantuan task of probing police policies and procedures during a nearly three-hour committee meeting Tuesday night in which councilors peppered the police chief with questions about the department and its policies.

The conversation was sparked by the nationwide call for police reform and an end to police killings of people of color and others in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died May 25 after a white police office knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd repeatedly uttered, “I can’t breathe.”

Since then, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets – in Portland and hundreds of cities in the United States and across the world – to demand an end to systemic racism and bias in policing. The discussion in Portland by the council is expected to be the first of several meetings on police policy.

Councilors said they had received hundreds of emails and messages over the weekend from constituents demanding action to end systemic racism and police violence. Legislators in Congress are also in the early stages of drafting legislation, and across the country, municipalities are grappling with the demands of their citizens, voiced over the last week on cardboard signs and through demonstrators’ megaphones.

It has left some councilors confused about what people want. Some demonstrators have called for immediate, short-term reforms to police policies. Others have urged a wholesale dismantling of the current police system by defunding departments and reinvesting those tax dollars in social services, education, youth programs and other social service priorities. Likewise, police officials, in responding to their questions, have drawn on a myriad of national policing groups’ recommendations, task force reports and other policy documents, all with slightly different language and ideas.

The broadest question of the night came from Councilor Belinda Ray, who acknowledged that police have been asked to play more and more roles in society, including mental health crisis workers, school counselors, medical first responders and substance abuse experts, to name a few. Ray asked about how has this shift has impacted the department, and also asked Police Chief Frank Clark what the council could do to make sure it’s not asking police to do a job they’re not equipped to perform.

“In terms of the hats that we wear, the mental health role, where we to some extent become the de-facto providers in that area, I kinda think back,” Clark said. “I’m not sure when that actually happened. I don’t know what year, what month, what day. It just kind of happened. I don’t think there’s one thing that we have on our plate, where we can take these one, two three things, and stop doing those things, and not have any impact on the community.”

And then there was the question of inclusion. Ray suggested that the system of policing has worked for her, a white woman, but important voices are those of marginalized communities who have felt the brunt of biased policing across the country.

“My experience isn’t the one I’m concerned about,” Ray said. “It’s the (perspective of) folks who look different than me, the folks who have experienced some of these issues, the folks who are the target of bias. I don’t expect an answer tonight, but how are we going to make sure those voices are reflected in the policies?”

Although the committee has only three council members, six councilors and mayor Kate Snyder attended the virtual session, held over Zoom. Clark began with a primer on hiring, training and disciplinary standards that the department follows, and explored the city’s use-of-force policy, which is currently being rewritten and will be renamed the “response to resistance” policy, Clark said. The policy is still in draft form and it’s unclear what substantive changes it might include.

“Force is still a word used out of a statute, it’s used in the academy,” Clark said. “I’d like to change the concept a little bit, change the paradigm a little bit. It’s exactly what it is, we’re in a reactive mode to a particular person or a set of circumstances.”

Moving forward, all department policies will be published online, he said, and some are already being posted to the city’s website. Clark also produced a dozen policy subsections dealing with officer discipline, body-worn cameras, use-of-force reporting and review procedures, less lethal weapon policies, and the internal affairs process for the council to review, and that are now posted alongside the meeting’s agenda.

Councilors also touched on police oversight issues. In Portland, the city has a citizen review committee that meets in executive session to review disciplinary cases against the police. Councilor Pious Ali sought answers about how other cities and towns handle such boards and commissions.

And while the Portland Police Department releases an annual report surveying the aggregate results of complaints about officers from inside the department and from external sources, it does not break down use-of-force complaints by the race of the complaining person.

City Councilor Tae Chong also asked for a breakdown of how many calls the department receives each year of a suspicious person, in which the caller reports that person’s race.

“With the immigrant and refugee kids I work with, they definitely feel as if that happens to them,” Chong said. “Do we capture that data?”

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau also wanted to know what military hardware the city’s force has received from the Department of Defense, and how many Portland police officers actually live in Portland – there is no residency requirement that officers live here.

Although the Health and Human Services and Public Safety subcommittee meets only monthly, the full city council will confront policing issues again on June 22, when the city manager is expected to deliver a report on the police actions during the demonstrations that turned violent on June 1.

In all, 23 people were arrested that night, and several businesses were looted or damaged, and police recorded dozens of instances of graffiti around the city.

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