Portland’s citizen police oversight panel appeared primed for an upgrade last year after residents approved a city charter amendment meant to expand the subcommittee’s power. But a proposed city ordinance lacks some key components of the plan, which has left both committee members and advocates for reform confused about the future of police oversight in Portland.

Members of the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee struggled Wednesday night to make sense of apparent inconsistencies between a charter amendment and a proposed ordinance intended to bring the new, more robust Civilian Police Review Board to life.

The members of the charter commission who drafted the amendment say they intended to expand the civilian review of complaints against the police department by implementing several changes. Whereas current subcommittee members can only review and evaluate internal police investigations based on four categories – fairness, objectivity, thoroughness and timeliness – the charter amendment says the new board will be able to examine “due process issues, including but not limited to” those classes.

Zack Barowitz, who helped lead the effort to design and draft the amendment, said the charter commission intentionally used broad language like “including but not limited to” rather than specific requirements so that the City Council would have the flexibility to enact the best possible ordinance to empower the new board.

“All this language was vetted by the attorney that the city assigned to the charter commission,” Barowitz told the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee at its meeting Wednesday night. “He was in full understanding of the spirit of the amendment, and I think the letter of the amendment is likewise quite clear.”

But the ordinance that the City Council will review at a workshop on Sept. 25 ignores some elements of the new charter amendment and instead recycles language from the current rule – language that critics say has rendered the committee powerless for decades.



Several years before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis pushed conversations around police reform to the forefront of the national consciousness, Maria Testa was already hearing complaints about Portland’s Police Citizen Review Subcommittee. By joining the board, she thought, she could help address what critics felt was a lack of civilian oversight.

But soon after her term started in 2018, she realized that the subcommittee was ineffectual not because of its members, but because of the ordinance that granted it almost no power.

“It’s almost impossible to know going in what this board actually does because what this board does is next to nothing,” said Testa, who left the subcommittee after her term expired in 2021. “It’s sort of stunning.”

Under the current system, the subcommittee reviews internal investigations into complaints against police only after those investigations are complete and the involved officer has been notified. Members have access to all investigation materials, including reports, interview transcripts and body cam footage, and they often form opinions about aspects of the investigation that were handled well or poorly, Testa said.

But in their final reports, they can only determine whether investigations were fair, objective, thorough and timely. According to Testa and other critics of the system, those limits mean the committee has no ability to offer guidance or criticism that could shape the way the department handles complaints. As long as internal affairs follows its standard operating procedure, the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee must rubber stamp the investigation, even if it feels there are problems with those standard operating procedures.


While serving on the subcommittee, Testa began researching how other cities around the country handled civilian police oversight. She learned Portland’s committee paled in comparison to other boards, which can wield powerful investigatory tools and issue disciplinary recommendations to police chiefs.

“Honestly, it was an infuriating process,” she said. “Because it only underscored what I was growing to suspect more and more, which is that we were not a good board at all, and we were really failing the community.”

Members of the charter commission went through a similar process. Though the group considered other types oversight boards, Barowitz said it elected to maintain the city’s civilian review model and expand its powers.

“These enhancements were meant to give the board and the City Council the maximum flexibility,” Barowitz said before Wednesday’s meeting.

But language intended to promote flexibility has instead caused confusion about whether the new committee is actually meant to have expanded responsibilities.



During their meeting Wednesday night, members of the subcommittee drafted a letter to the City Council asking for more clarity on several aspects of the proposed ordinance, including whether the new board will be limited to evaluating investigations on the four existing categories.

Barowitz and Joey Brunelle, a former City Council candidate who said he has closely watched the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee over the last several years, pushed the committee to advocate for language that aligns with the “spirit of the amendment.” They pointed out several other contradictions between the amendment and the proposed ordinance, including who would initially receive police complaints, who would appoint a community liaison, and whether the board would have the power to recommend changes to internal affairs processes.

But some appeared unconvinced and wondered whether the charter amendment’s vague language actually suggested the council should be conservative in granting the new board expanded powers.

“I’m just concerned about kind of the scope creep that tends to happen when the commission was not prescriptive,” subcommittee member Kenneth Lewis said. “It feels to some extent like we’re almost relegislating.”

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