The Portland Charter Commission began gathering facts Monday night about how it could reshape citizen oversight of police in the state’s largest municipal police force, a process that could change who handles complaints against police and how officer discipline is meted out.

A three-member charter commission subcommittee, which is examining every city department, heard from two experts and a former member of Portland’s current police oversight group.

In testimony, the speakers told the commission members the city’s current citizen police oversight structure is not working; that other cities are taking bold steps to reimagine how to hand citizens more control over their police forces; and that reimagining and strengthening citizen oversight is not an indictment of the Portland police, but a way to enhance public trust in police as an institution.

But absent from the discussion was any member of the Portland police department or a representative of its officer unions. A request for a police representative to attend and speak went unanswered, said subcommittee chair Ryan Lizanecz, who added that he will reach out again to police to solicit their input.

Whether they plan to attend future meetings is unknown, but police participation in the decision-making process is essential to a successful process that the officers will have to live with, said Cameron McEllhiney, director of training and education for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

“I can guarantee you that shutting everyone out of the process that does not entirely agree with it does not make the outcome better,” McEllhiney said. “I’ve had conversations with officers who were involved in the process, who said things like, ‘It’s not what I wanted, but it felt better having it done with me, rather than to me.'”

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In 90 minutes of testimony, the charter members heard an overview of how other cities and towns have approached citizen oversight of police, which could provide them a menu of policies and statutory provisions that have been successful elsewhere and could help form the basis for a new oversight structure in Portland. The conversation was the beginning of what is likely to be a lengthy, closely watched process.

Currently, the Portland Police Citizen Review Subcommittee has no power to recommend discipline or judge officers’ actions, and is generally not permitted to evaluate internal complaints, but only accusations from the public. Its narrow mission is to evaluate whether the internal affairs investigative process itself was “thorough, objective, fair and timely,” a judgment of whether the internal affairs sergeant did his job.

In the group’s 20-year history, only once has it found that an internal affairs investigation did not meet those criteria, in which the members of the subcommittee were accidentally permitted to review a case that involved an internal complaint by one officer against another. It is the only such oversight board in Maine. Nationally, citizen oversight is still most often associated with large departments, but Portland’s small size compared to Tucson, Arizona; Seattle; or New York City does not mean that big-city ideas cannot be scaled, mixed and matched to suit Portland’s needs, McEllhiney said.

Of about 18,000 police departments nationwide, there are only about 200 citizen oversight boards, and no two are identical in their rules or structure, she said.

Maria Testa, a former member of the Portland Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, urged the charter commission members to see the goal of stronger citizen oversight not as a rebuke of the police, but as a basic and essential part of good governance. That Portland only receives a handful of complaints – 13 in 2019 and six in 2020 – does not necessarily indicate that a better oversight process is not warranted. Conversely, she said, seeking improvement is not an indictment of police here.

“We need to rid ourselves of the notion that wanting a good, rigorous oversight board of the police department in this city is a criticism of the police department,” Testa said.

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DIGNITY AND POWER

In her experience, she said, most complaints from citizens center on a sense of disrespect by an officer, even when the officer does not break policy or make a procedural error.

“This is about dignity, human dignity,” Testa said. “That’s part of policing, too, and that’s often something that’s not easily defined by a standard operating procedure. That’s something difficult for the police investigating themselves to recognize.”

Brendan McQuade, a criminologist and professor at the University of Southern Maine, briefed the commissioners on the history of police oversight efforts through the 20th century, and highlighted how some of the nation’s largest cities – Cleveland, Minneapolis and Chicago – are taking dramatic steps to reshape the relationship between the public and the police by handing more direct authority over police discipline and policy to citizen representatives.

At minimum, he believes that any oversight agency should make disciplinary recommendations to police administrators on individual cases, or have the power to make binding decisions. He also suggested giving some degree of control or influence to citizens in the hiring of top police leadership. He also pointed to a proposal in Cleveland to offer some democratic, citizen-led control of police policy making.

“There are many ways that police oversight can be done,” McQuade said. “For it to be a serious suggestion and not just an empty gesture, it needs to have real power.”

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