Federal prosecutors, Portland attorneys unable to reach agreement with police union on Police Bureau reforms

The Oregonian

By Maxine Bernstein

Federal prosecutors and city attorneys have reached an impasse with the Portland police union on reforms that should be made by the police bureau to address a scathing federal inquiry that found officers use excessive force against people with mental illness.

“It’s certainly disappointing that we were unable to resolve the concerns of the union through mediation,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Adrian L. Brown on Friday, after filing a status report in federal court.

It’s been three months since a federal judge directed the city, federal justice officials and the Portland police union to work out their differences before a mediator. Former Oregon chief justice Paul DeMuniz has served as mediator.

Now, the city of Portland, federal prosecutors and the union are seeking guidance from U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon. In a court filing Friday afternoon, they asked the judge to set a hearing in mid-July to determine the next step.

The discussions stem from a nearly 15-month inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice that found last year that Portland police engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force against people suffering from or perceived to have a mental illness.

A settlement agreement between federal investigators and the city, approved by the City Council on Nov. 14, called for widespread changes to Portland police policies on use of force, Tasers, training, supervision and oversight. It also called for a restructuring of police crisis intervention training and quicker internal inquiries into alleged police misconduct.

When the agreement was presented to Judge Simon for review and approval, the police union and the Albina Ministerial Alliance’s Coalition for Justice and Police Reform sought to intervene in the pending agreement. The union argued that changes to the Portland police policies, training and oversight undermined the collective bargaining rights of its members. In particular, the union argued that changes to the bureau’s use of force policy, disciplinary procedures, and working conditions needed to be the subject of mandatory bargaining.

Simon allowed the Portland Police Association to formally intervene in the crafting of reforms.

With the impasse, the federal judge could send the parties involved back to the table to continue discussions.

Or, he could set court hearing dates for the city, federal prosecutors and the union to address two outstanding questions: Whether the negotiated settlement agreement that the city reached with federal justice officials prejudices the legal rights of police union members? and 2/ If so, does that prevent the court from approving the agreement without holding a trial to determine the merits of the complaint that justice officials filed against the city?

Officer Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, declined to comment on the breakdown in talks Friday. On Monday, the union put out a prepared statement, noting that the breakdown was “not due to lack of effort by the Portland Police Association.”

“Our collective bargaining concerns are not insignificant,” Turner said in the statement. “They were focused on officer safety, workload issues and training concerns that until fully satisfied prevent us from lending our unconditional support to the settlement agreement.”

Portland City Attorney James Van Dyke said he’s not terribly surprised.

“I think this is a complex case. There’s a lot of issues outstanding. There are concerns by the union. Anything that’s complicated and affects a lot of people is going to take awhile to work its way through,” he said.

Simon did not grant legal intervention to the alliance but allowed its attorneys to be involved in mediation talks.

Federal prosecutors reported that they’ve made progress addressing the alliance’s concerns about reforms and plan to continue talks with its lawyers. The coalition had argued in legal briefs that the settlement agreement failed to address concerns raised about police use of force against people of color; lacked strict restrictions on police use of Tasers and provided no formal process for court oversight once an agreement is signed.

“We are optimistic that we will resolve AMA’s concerns. We are close,” Brown said Friday.

Brown added that federal officials are pleased the city and Police Bureau has chosen to move ahead with some of the requested reforms, such as training on a new use of force policy and the creation of a specialized Crisis Intervention Team of officers.

“We’re pleased and encouraged that they’re moving in the right direction,” she said.