Portland charter commissioners eager to revamp police oversight

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Some members of Portland’s Charter Commission are poised to recommend revamping the city’s police review board.

The commission’s three-member departments committee met Monday night to continue hearing from experts about the city’s Police Citizen Review Subcommittee and on the role of the Police Department in the community.

Charter Commission departments committee meeting
The Portland Charter Commission’s departments committee met remotely Monday night, Oct. 25, with Lelia DeAndrade, lower right, who co-chaired the city’s temporary Racial Equity Steering Committee. Among other things, that committee recommended totally dissolving the existing Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, which DeAndrade said provided more of a human resources function than true oversight, in favor of a new panel with more authority. Clockwise from lower left are Commissioners Zack Barowitz, Ryan Lizanecz, and Marcques Houston. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

During the three-hour meeting, the committee heard from two members of the former Racial Equity Steering Committee – Lelia DeAndrade and Ali Ali – and the chair of the PCRS, Emily West.

DeAndrade said she considered the PCRS comparable to a human resources panel rather than a true civilian oversight board. West described it as more of an auditing body.

“I think having us is better than nothing,” she said, “but it’s a low bar to set.”

West said the authority of the PCRS is limited – it is only there to see if investigations into complaints were done in an objective, timely, thorough and fair manner. And aside from a single instance last summer, she said the PCRS has always found that investigations met those standards.

She added that the PCRS has no way to communicate its findings to the public beyond affirming those criteria. She said following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, there was a call for increased police oversight, but there must be transparency and accountability for that to happen – and in Portland there is no transparency.

“We can’t say if we agree with the decision,” West said. “This is where the public should have more information.”

DeAndrade, who co-chaired the RESC, said one of its final recommendations to the City Council was to dissolve the PCRS and replace it with a committee with more authority. She said committee members were surprised by the narrow charge of the PCRS and ultimately believed it is not capable of true civilian oversight.

DeAndrade said a major problem with the PCRS is its membership. People who work for the city cannot participate, and anyone who has been or has family members who have been involved with the police is excluded.

“We did feel strongly that there needed to be some opportunity for the public to have a voice and hear what the complaints were,” she said. “We appreciate there needs to be some level of privacy. But there was a very clear need here for some kind of transparency.”

Ali, who also works with Maine Youth Justice, agreed with DeAndrade that the RESC “did the best we could” given the time it was allowed. Ali said one thing the members learned about the PCRS was the limits Maine has regarding information available from internal investigations. He said Maine law prohibits public access to that information, and even more troubling, if an officer resigns before an investigation begins, the probe ends and there isn’t a record.

“Confidentiality is a tool of white supremacy,” Ali said. “It keeps information away.”

Ali also said the RESC looked at other issues of policing, including the need for experts to be involved in response to people in mental health crises, and the need to weed out systemic Police Department racism. That could involve screening officers to discover signs they are routinely antagonizing certain groups of people, he said.

Ryan Lizanecz, chair of the departments committee, which also includes Commissioners Zach Barowitz and Marcques Houston, said the panel’s goal will likely be to have a police oversight recommendation ready for the full commission “after the holidays.”

While there are other topics the committee wants to discuss, Lizanecz said it’s his opinion that these issues, and removing the PCRS from the city manager’s administration, should be sent to voters.

The PCRS, which meets monthly to review citizen complaints against police, has struggled over the past year, with board members demanding 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.

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