Spurred by Protests, Oregon Lawmakers Convene Special Legislative Session

The Oregon capitol building in Salem.

SALEM, Ore. (CN) — Lawmakers in Oregon advanced police accountability bills in a special session that kicked off Wednesday due in large part to pressure from nightly protests in Portland and across the state demanding an end to police violence.

The state’s House of Representatives introduced bills Wednesday to ban police use of chokeholds, tear gas and acoustic weapons, require cops to step in if they see another officer using excessive force, create a state database of officer disciplinary actions and require investigations by the Oregon Department of Justice in cases where police kill or seriously injure people.

And in the Senate, lawmakers introduced a bill that would bar arbitrators from overruling firings and other disciplinary actions in cases of police misconduct. 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 was the situation in high-profile police abuse cases like the 2017 fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Quanice Hayes, and in an 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.

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 the police, saying they were afraid for their safety as officers 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 the lead up to the special legislative session that kicked off Wednesday, police unions said the bill gave too much power to cities, while police accountability groups said it didn’t take enough power away from arbitrators.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s order requiring the use of face masks indoors took effect Wednesday. Senate Leader Peter Courtney requested that members follow the order, but told press he wasn’t sure he could enforce the order in the Capitol.

The first day of the special session was a marathon, running from 8 a.m. into the evening. The Capitol was closed to the public due to Covid-19, with some legislators attending hearings from home, and those who attended in person wearing face masks and staying six feet apart. Except for two Republican senators – Brian Boquist and Dennis Linthicum – who attended sans mask.

In the House, a bill was introduced and voted onto the floor Wednesday that would extend the governor’s moratorium on evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Another would temporarily prevent foreclosures, in support of federal actions.

And the Senate passed out of committee a bill that would make into law an agreement on aerial spraying hammered out between environmentalists and timber companies.

The Legislature is set to reconvene Thursday, with the special session continuing at least until the end of the week.

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