Portland charter commissioners dive into Police Dept. oversight, without police cooperation

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In one of the more substantive steps any of its committees have taken so far, members of the Charter Commission Monday started discussing a possible overhaul of the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee.

Commissioner Ryan Lizanecz, who chairs the commission’s departments committee, said this is an issue mentioned frequently by the public. He also said it was a natural place for the committee to begin, since the Police Department makes up “a massive amount of our municipal budget.”

Portland Charter Commissioner Ryan Lizanecz

“Part of this is just doing the initial first steps in looking at what this is, how the subcommittee works,” he said ahead of the Oct. 4 meeting.

Although they were invited to the meeting, Police Department officials declined to attend.

The PCRS, which meets monthly to review citizen complaints against police, has had its struggles over the past year, with board members searching for ways to gain more authority. The group also clashed with outgoing City Manager Jon Jennings over having citizen representation on an internal police use-of-force review committee.

Former PCRS member Maria Testa, who spoke to the departments committee Monday night, said in an interview last week that she supports scrapping the PCRS and “starting over.”

“I spent three years (on the PCRS),” she said. “That’s an object lesson in what doesn’t work.”

Testa, who has been an advocate for more authority for the PCRS, said the purview of the subcommittee is so narrow that it isn’t even a real oversight board when compared to others around the country.

“I’m excited anyone in Portland wants to take this seriously,” she said of the Charter Commission taking up the issue. “… There’s a lot of new guidelines that have come out. Oversight is evolving in the country. There’s a lot for us to learn. I don’t like to talk in terms of the PCRS, that’s nothing. Portland needs to develop a good oversight board that meets the city’s needs.”

Lizanecz said police oversight boards have been a topic that municipalities around the country have been exploring, especially in the wake of Minneapolis police killing George Floyd and the protests that followed around the country in summer 2020, including those in Portland.

“So what is a good balance between public safety, the Police Department, and adding more teeth into a police review board?” Lizanecz said. “The public comments we’ve received have been leaning towards a stronger board for sure. But there’s a wide variety of what police reform looks like.”

Lizanecz said he invited department officials to be part of the discussion Monday night, but they said they could not make it. A spokesperson for the Police Department did not respond when asked why the department would not send a representative to the meeting.

In addition to the public, Testa, and members of the PCRS, the city’s former Racial Equity Steering Committee also called for dissolving the existing review board and creating one that actually has oversight over the police. As part of their list of recommendations to the City Council, the RESC expressed a lack of confidence in the review board because of its policies and how it was structured.

“The Charter Commission is a great place for this,” Lizanecz said. “And we’re not going into the deep intricacies of what a review board could look like, but what structures the council could look at if we go this route. We’ll see what happens.”

The committee also heard from Brendan McQuade, who is a University of Southern Maine professor who teaches criminology and has been an advocate for police reform, and Cameron McEllhiney, the director of training and education for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

“I hope it leads to a good direction we want to approach with this,” Lizanecz said. “… My gut feeling is we need a strong independent review board. The intricacies are what we’re looking at. But I could be surprised.”

Testa said it is important to continue the public outreach, because that was something the PCRS was not fully able to accomplish.

“One thing I hear is ‘do we need this in Portland?’” she said. “We need this because we have a Police Department. We don’t not need a good oversight board because we have a good Police Department, and we don’t need a good oversight board because we have a bad Police Department. We need oversight because we have a Police Department.

“The modern thinking is these bodies need to exist side by side. There needs to be citizen oversight of that department. It’s got nothing to do with whatever people think of our Police Department. That’s a new way of thinking, but it is the current thinking.”

While Monday night’s meeting also included a public hearing, only three people spoke.

Wes Pelletier, one of the speakers, said it was “telling” that the police didn’t send a representative. He said he would like to see the Charter Commission put a cap on what can be spent on the department, and would rather see people who are “better equipped” to handle situations with unhoused individuals going through a mental crisis instead of the police just arresting them. 

The departments committee will meet again on Oct. 18, and members of the committee said this is a topic they will revisit. Commissioner Zack Barowitz said it is important to continue to seek community engagement, and they should continue to ask for a police representative. 

“This is a topic we could devote a lot of time to,” Barowitz said. “It deserves some review at the next meeting.”