‘Lack of authority’ spurs call for change on Portland police citizen review panel

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Members of Portland Police Citizen Review Subcommittee want their panel to be granted more authority.

At a meeting on Aug. 12 members said Portland’s model is the weakest it could be, and that should change.

Member Maria Testa, who has been vocal in the past about wanting more authority for the subcommittee, said while Portland may be a small city, it doesn’t have to be small when it comes to civilian oversight of law enforcement.

“We can do better and we have to do better,” she said.

Portland Police Citizen Review Subcommittee member Maria Testa, during the Aug. 12 remote meeting where she spoke for enhanced authority for the panel. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Testa gave an example of the limitations of the PCRS, using the case of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man in Aurora, Colorado, who was killed by police while he was wearing a ski mask. McClain was placed in a chokehold and given a sedative, and later died of cardiac arrest. The three officers involved claimed their body cameras were knocked off during the struggle with the unarmed McClain.

Testa said an “absence of oversight” in Aurora allowed the three officers to remain on the job. She said the result would have been the same in Portland.

“In our model, we would have no authority,” she said.

In speaking with other citizen review boards in the region, Testa said she found there are generally three models of oversight.

The first is review, which stems from public complaints. The second is an audit model, where the board can review a wide array of police department policies and procedures. The third is investigative.

Testa said Portland’s model technically falls under review, but is “almost outside of that” because it is so weak. She said the ordinance that governs the PCRS was explicitly written to give the board very little power.

“We have no authority to subpoena or call witnesses,” she said. “We make no recommendations or offer findings relative to disciplinary action. This is a … lack of authority.”

Testa said she looked at the similar boards in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island, for comparison, since she said those cities are fairly similar in size to Portland.

“There are so many things here we’re not even close to doing,” she said. “I’ve spoken to other review boards, and we’re not even speaking the same language.”

Cambridge, she said, is a review board with more power. She said they have a staff that helps investigate complaints alongside the Police Department. Staff then submit their report to the review board, which deliberates and makes findings. Along the way, both complainants and the police may request hearings before the board.

Providence, she said, investigates misconduct.

“We have no common language,” she said. “We’re not the same thing. This is what I’m finding everywhere I look.”

Testa said it’s also unclear why the ordinance was written as it was. She said she’s looked for any documentation from the time the committee was created, but hasn’t found much. She said the ordinance that governs the panel was made in a very different time, and likely wouldn’t be written the same way today.

She said she requested staff help to find records of “who was in the room” when the PCRS was created, to get a better sense of what the intent at the time was.

Testa also said the timing of this discussion is valuable, because of the Charter Commission being formed in the city. She said the PCRS is just a group of seven people, and any overhaul needs community support. She said she plans to speak to the Charter Commission once it is formed on the need to overhaul the PCRS.

The Charter Commission will have the power to recommend changes to the city’s style of governance as well as the restructuring of city ordinances.

“If we can get elected officials on board, the Charter Commission on board, we could be a model,” Testa said.

Portand PCRS Chair Emily Grant said funding is one of the things that panel members must consider when proposing changes to the panel’s operation. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

She also said a stronger review board doesn’t have to be adversarial to the Police Department. She used Cambridge as an example, where their review board is strong, but also has a good working relationship with police. She said the two obviously remain separate, but they work toward a common goal of having a community that is happy with its Police Department.

“You don’t have to be friends but you certainly don’t have to be adversarial,” Testa said.

She said other review boards she’s researched have additional facets such as use-of-force committees, civilian oversight into the local jail, and youth advisory committees.

“We can do all of this,” Testa said. “For many things, our small size is an asset.”

Members of the PCRS expressed support for Testa’s findings, agreeing there’s a need for the public to have a place other than the police to file complaints.

Testa said the fact city councilors were pleased that there were no complaints against police following the June 1 and 2 Black Lives Matter protests was meaningless.

“It’s a deterrent to have to go to the police and file a complaint,” she said. “If you can file with the board, that is building community.”

PCRS Chair Emily West said committee funding is an obstacle, so it is important that any proposed changes be realistic.

Testa noted that in Providence, the board’s staff are part-time and paid by stipend.

“There are lots of creative solutions to do things,” she said.

Board member Kaylin Kerina said if the board is serious about making changes it would have to document and publish its process and findings, in the form of a formal research process and a published report.

“This is something that is important to document,” she said.

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