Oregon Lawmakers Pass Suite of Police-Accountability Laws

Protesters gather outside Revolution Hall in Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday in the 13th consecutive day of demonstrations against police racism and brutality. (Courthouse News photo/Karina Brown)

SALEM, Ore. (CN) — Bills to ban police use of chokeholds and tear gas, create a state database of officer misconduct, require cops to stop the misconduct of other officers and report it, and a new task force to recommend further legislation all headed to the governor’s desk Friday.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown called a special session of the Legislature, mostly in response to widespread protests that have gathered thousands nightly in Portland and across the state in the month since a white police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“It will take far more work to set our state on a path toward racial justice, but these are very important steps forward,” Brown said in a statement Friday night. She is expected to sign the bills into law.

Bills banning tear gas and chokeholds were weakened by amendments, allowing police to use chokeholds under circumstances that justify deadly force, and allowing tear gas and acoustic weapons when police have declared a riot.

Portland police last declared a riot May 29, the first of nearly a month of nightly protests in Portland in the movement for black lives. That night, protesters marched downtown from Peninsula Park in northeast Portland to rally around the Multnomah County Justice Center.

A handful of protesters broke the front windows and threw fireworks inside. Several small fires started, which were quickly extinguished by the building’s sprinkler system, as riot cops emerged from inside the building to push protesters back down the steps.

Every night since then, large crowds have amassed in front of the building, where police guard the internal perimeter of a chainlink fence, under the glare of floodlights.

Since then, police have often declared a civil disturbance before using tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and swinging batons to push the crowds back. They have fired indiscriminately at peaceful protesters, and on several occasions pepper sprayed journalists and hit them with batons.

Despite their continued heavy use of force and chemical weapons, Portland Police spokeswoman Melissa Newhard said police have not declared a riot since that first night.

Speaking on a bill that would create a statewide database making police disciplinary records public, Rep. Lawrence Spence said Friday that Oregonians deserve access to the records of officers “who hold great authority in our communities.”

“This bill is the first step in a long line of many steps needed to affirm the proclamation that black lives matter,” said Spence, a member of the House Democratic People of Color Caucus. “It gives us the ability to see patterns, to see who is unfit to serve ‘we the people.’”

The Legislature also passed bills that will extend a moratorium on evictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic and bar mortgage foreclosures for the same reason. Missed payments will be due at the end of the loan.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that bars arbitrators from reversing disciplinary decisions in police misconduct cases.

Under current laws, Portland police fired for killing unarmed black people or found to have engaged in racist harassment have had their jobs reinstated by sympathetic arbitrators.

That’s what happened in high-profile police abuse cases like the 2003 fatal shooting of Kendra James, an unarmed, 21-year-old black woman in a traffic stop, the 2010 shooting of 25-year-old Aaron Campbell, who was killed after his mother asked police to check on her son, and in the aftermath of an infamous 1981 incident where two white Portland police officers admitted to leaving dead possums outside the Burger Barn, a popular black-owned restaurant.

In the 1981 incident, protests erupted, and the officers involved were fired. But later, an arbitrator reinstated their jobs with back pay. The restaurant’s owners, George and Geraldine Powe, sued saying they were afraid for their safety as police continued to harass them.

They asked for $3.8 million and an injunction banning police policies and practices of racial discrimination and harassment. They wanted a plan to force the bureau to adopt training and police oversight. They ended up agreeing to a settlement of $64,000.

In a speech on Friday that closed out the special session, Sen. James Manning Jr., a black Democrat from Eugene, said the bills were a start.

“They are accountability bills and I agree with other speakers that some do not go far enough,” he said.

He later described an experience of racial profiling when he was a young boy walking with friends. He said a cop pulled over and accused him of breaking into parking meters with a hammer. Manning said the cop arrested him, put him in the back of the police car, and later shoved a gloved hand down the back of his pants.

“When we talk about the fear of people who look like me dealing with police officers,” Manning Jr. said, “that was the experience of a kid in elementary school. Me.”

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