Oregon lawmakers will likely return to Salem by month’s end to consider policing legislation in the wake of mass nationwide protests following the shooting of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And, the Emergency Board is rumored to meet Friday to allocate additional resources from the federal coronavirus emergency financial assistance.
Congressional Democrats unveiled their sweeping Justice in Policing Act last week that would limit or eliminate the controversial issues of police immunity for civilian shootings. Oregon legislative Democrats appear to have a more targeted objective of police accountability – barring arbitrators from overturning police discipline in use-of-force or racial bias cases.
Oregonlive interviewed Senator Lew Frederick, who has sponsored 59 police reform bills over the last decade, few of which have passed. He said the arbitration bill, which is expected to be the centerpiece of legislation at the upcoming special session, could have passed in the 2019 and 2020 sessions. It didn’t, he added, because his white colleagues “didn’t see the urgency”, which has changed.
As of the end of last week, forty policy issues are under consideration for the special session. Ten or so of them have bipartisan support, according to insiders. The others don’t, at least not yet.
Disagreement persists on when to call a special session to address coronavirus-related issues, including the gaping budget hole the lockdown has gouged in state tax revenues. Speaker Tina Kotek has been holding out for a delay in a special session until it is clear when and whether Congress will enact a second CARES Act. The House has passed a $3 trillion measure containing $1 trillion in backfill funding for states and local governments, but the Senate has hit the pause button on any legislation and hinted there is no need for additional financial assistance.
Congress does seem to be on a path to pass police reform legislation. The question is how fundamental changes will be. The Democratic proposal addresses issues such as police immunity, the absence of a national police misconduct registry and the use of chokeholds, which was the cause of Floyd’s death.
Senate Republicans have tapped Senator Tim Scott, its lone African-American caucus member, to spearhead its police reform measure. Appearing on Face the Nation over the weekend, Scott said a provision to end qualified police immunity would be a political “poison pill” that could block passage of any reform proposal. President Trump limits on police immunity a “non-starter”.
“We know that any poison pill in legislation means we get nothing done,” Scott said. “That sends the wrong signal, perhaps the worst signal, right now in America.”
Police reform is a hot issue in cities as council members attempt to straddle calls to defund police departments with meaningful policy and budget adjustments. The City of Portland is considering a $15 million cut in its police budget, but Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said budget cuts don’t go far enough toward a solution. Reform advocates have pushed to slash $50 million from the proposed $244 million police budget, forcing City official to rethink the structure of policing. City Council will vote on the budget this week after it failed to get the needed four votes for passage last week.
School districts and transit agencies are considering whether to continue to have police officers in schools and on public transportation.
Police unions are emerging as a central issue of reform measures. Some union leaders have sharply criticized reform measures, which they say will make police work more dangerous. The collective power of local police unions throughout the country has been responsible for diluting reforms.
However, NPR broadcast a special report over the weekend that drew a connection between the advent of police unions in the 1950s and an increase in police shootings of civilians. Rob Gillezeau, an economist and cofounder of Racial Uprisings Lab which has gathered data since the 1990s, said, “We found that after officers gained access to collective bargaining rights that there was a substantial increase in killings of civilians” – with most of the increase in killings of non-white civilians.
One explanation is that local governments avoided larger pay hikes for police by agreeing to contract provisions giving police officers more legal protection for their actions. “So, it really does look like it is a protection of the ability to discriminate,” Gillezeau said, which lends credence to claims there is systemic bias in policing.
The 346,000-member National Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement supporting congressional reform legislation, “When our citizens do not feel safe in the presence of police, that’s a problem – and the FOP intends to be part of the solution.”