Members of an obscure committee charged with reviewing complaints against Portland police officers said Wednesday night that its role must be expanded if it is to effectively hold officers accountable for their actions.

Portland officers stand at the top of the stairs as protestors gather outside the police station on May 31. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Members and police officials were questioned Wednesday about the department’s handling of several Black Lives Matter demonstrations that flooded city streets with thousands of protesters and led to the arrests of at least 33 people, and about the committee’s oversight role over the department.

Portland’s Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, a group of seven residents appointed by the City Council, held a virtual public meeting with Portland Police Chief Frank Clark and other top ranking officers.

Committee Chairwoman Emily West started off the two-and-a-half hour meeting by stating that the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after an officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes weighed heavily on her and other members of the committee.

“I think we have a duty to do some hard and necessary work around the issue of racial injustice,” West said. “But I’m not sure this is the committee to do that.”

The committee, created as a subcommittee of the Civil Service Commission by the City Council in 2001, reports to City Manager Jon Jennings and has a very narrow purview – to review police investigations into citizen complaints about officers’ enforcement actions and ensure those investigations are “thorough, objective, fair and timely.”

West and other members said they have no budget, no authority to hold Portland police accountable for their actions, and that most residents don’t even know the committee exists. Most members said their role, given the situation in the country, should be re-evaluated and possibly expanded.

“I think the public would be shocked to know how little authority this committee has or that it even exists,” said Joey Brunelle, a Portland resident.

“I want the committee to have investigative capabilities, so real advocacy can happen,” said Heather McIntosh, another member of the public. She said the committee needs more power to be effective and to hold officers accountable. “Until it has more power, this committee will continue to be ineffective.”

Currently, the committee can’t provide details on specific incidents, and can only say whether the police acted fairly, objectively, thoroughly and in a timely manner.

“The outcome from this committee is always the same,” said Maria Testa, who has been on the committee for two years, adding that the police investigations of officers’ actions are always approved. “That is the only conclusion we can come to because our purview is too narrow.”

Members of the panel agreed to hold another meeting soon, but did not set a date. They said they want to find out more about the roles of similar citizen committees in other cities. Members also expressed interest in meeting with the City Council to try to better define their role.

The Portland City Council met Tuesday night and began delving into Portland police policies and procedures. During that meeting, councilors referred to the citizen review committee, which typically meets in executive session to review disciplinary cases against police.

Councilor Pious Ali wanted to know how other cities and towns handle such boards and commissions. The City Council will discuss policing issues again at its June 22 meeting, when the city manager is expected to deliver a report on the actions taken by officers during the demonstrations that turned violent on June 1.

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