Oregon Capital Bureau
Oregon legislators reached a swift consensus Friday on half a dozen bills that one of their chief advocates says will move toward improving police practices and accountability.
The bills were one of the chief aims of the special session, which Gov. Kate Brown called a month after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted nationwide demonstrations against police misconduct.
The bills restrict — but do not ban — police use of chokeholds on suspects and tear gas on crowds. Instead of transferring investigations of officer-involved shootings from county district attorneys to the state attorney general, a bill sets up a legislative committee to look at police use of force, citizen complaints about police and independent review of officer-involved shootings.
But Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat from Portland, said they’re a start. Frederick, one of two Black members of the Oregon Senate, has worked on such legislation during his 11-year legislative tenure.
“This is another important step in reforming our law enforcement to become one that all Oregonians can trust,” he said.
“While there may be a few bad apples (among police), one has the power to take a human life — and one is too many.”
He has been stopped by police in his own neighborhood in Portland.
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons said his concern was not about reform — he favors it — but about police unions he asserts are a barrier to reform.
“All people are created equal, and we still struggle with that,” Girod said. “It is time that it ends. It’s been going on for far too long.”
Rep. Rick Lewis is a Republican from Silverton, where he was mayor and police chief, and also chairman of the state Public Safety Standards and Training Board. He said most police live up to their professional standards — and welcome steps to weed out bad officers.
“They are the ones who run toward danger, not away from it,” he said. “Police work is one of the few professions where good people undergo ridicule and criticism when there are a few bad cops in the profession, no matter where in the country they are.”
Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Democrat from Clackamas who leads the House Judiciary Committee, said she welcomed Lewis’ help in shaping the package.
“It is important not to pick on people, but to dismantle the system that is generating outcomes that none of us is happy with,” Bynum said. The Black lawmaker was the focus of an incident in 2018, when she was canvassing her district and someone called the Clackamas County sheriff to check on her.
Here’s a summary of the police accountability bills as amended by the 14-member special session committee:
- Arbitration: Senate Bill 1604 bars a labor arbitrator from lessening the discipline against a police officer if the arbitrator concludes that misconduct is consistent with the finding of the agency that employed the officer. This bill passed the Senate in 2019 and 2020, but died without a vote in the House.
- Deadly force investigations: House Bill 4201, as amended, creates a joint legislative committee to review how complaints about police use of force are investigated, how investigations into use of deadly force are conducted, and how independent reviews of police use of force should be done. The amendment substitutes for the original bill, which would have transferred responsibility for use-of-force investigations from district attorneys in Oregon’s 36 counties to the state attorney general.
- Chokeholds: House Bill 4203, as amended, bans chokeholds or similar techniques unless an officer is faced with using deadly force as defined by a 1971 law. The original bill would have banned such techniques outright.
- Officer duty to intervene and report: House Bill 4205, as amended, requires officers to intervene when they witness misconduct, which includes “unjustified or excessive force,” unless they cannot do it safely — and to report such misconduct to a supervisor. The original bill would have required a state agency to adopt such rules.
- Database: House Bill 4207 directs the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to create a statewide database of disciplinary records of officers, and certifications, suspensions and revocations.
- Use of tear gas: House Bill 4208, as amended, restricts police from using tear gas except to quell a riot. It also requires police to announce the use of tear gas, allow time for the crowd to disperse, and repeat the announcement before its use. The original bill would have banned the use of tear gas outright.