Portland racial equity panel seeks new police oversight committee

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The panel charged with addressing racial equity issues in Portland is recommending dissolving the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee and replacing it with a stronger committee that would oversee the Police Department.

In its interim report to the City Council, the Racial Equity Steering Committee proposed overhauling the PCRS, a recommendation that echoes what members of that committee have been suggesting for several months. Members of the PCRS have been attempting to gain more authority, although their recommendations have largely been stymied by City Manager Jon Jennings.

According to the report, members of the Racial Equity Steering Committee expressed a unanimous lack of confidence in the PCRS because of the policies that structure the committee’s work. They recommended doing away with the PCRS as it is currently constituted and creating a “more equitable and accountable oversight committee” in its place.

“The committee is firm in their belief that the current disqualifications attached to the PCRS stigmatize and punish people who have been arrested and/or who have been incarcerated,” the group said in its discussion of who is allowed to serve on the PCRS. 

One member of the Racial Equity Steering Committee has been arrested before, the report said, and is therefore prohibited from serving on the PCRS. It called this an “overt” inconsistency.

The Racial Equity Steering Committee’s interim report also called for the creation of a department of racial equity at City Hall as well as a permanent racial equity board to evaluate city policies for overt racism and bias.

The report also recommended the city adopt a crisis response system to respond to nonviolent incidents rather than have police respond. This would likely include incidents involving homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health. Although this response model might work in collaboration with the Police Department, the committee said it should not be housed within the department or receive funding from it.

The group recommended the City Council develop and implement a framework for a COVID-19 homelessness response to address the public health crisis. It also recommended all city staff, including police officers and city councilors, undergo a racial equity audit and participate in annual anti-bias training.

The steering committee was formed last summer after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, who was in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Along with nationwide protests, there were local protests, most notably on June 1 when police and protesters clashed, more than 20 people were arrested, and officers deployed pepper spray. The city recently selected a consulting firm to conduct a third-party investigation into the Police Department’s handling of that protest.

While initially slated to have a full report to the City Council in January, the 13-member committee sought and was granted an extension for its work. It will continue to meet weekly until April 1, and is aiming to have a full report delivered to the council by April 12.

The committee also proposed reviewing all current criminal trespass orders from city shelters, public places, and private properties to see if these orders have a “disparate impact” on racially marginalized communities and people with substance abuse disorders or mental health diagnoses. The panel then plans to review the policies surrounding how criminal trespass orders are issued, and may recommend withdrawing them completely and instead offering social services and shelter.

Housing advocates have called for the city to do away with these criminal trespass orders since they prevent some people from gaining access to city homeless shelters.