PORTLAND, Ore. — Half a year after city officials and union leaders agreed to postpone negotiations amid ongoing racial justice protests, both sides are once again attempting to hammer out a new contract for the union that represents roughly 900 rank-and-file officers, detectives, sergeants and dispatchers with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).
Negotiations began Wednesday and may continue for a maximum of 150 days before heading to mediation, Portland Police Association (PPA) president Brian Hunzeker said. Hunzeker, who’s been an officer with the bureau since 2000, took the job in November after longtime PPA president Daryl Turner stepped down.
“This is a new day. This is a new start. It's a new year,” Hunzeker said in an interview last week. “We're looking for direct guidance, tangible guidance that we can set out and attain. Philosophical questions and talking about ‘Hey, let's do better and let's get together’ are great, and I'm in for that. We also need plans.”
In an op-ed published in the Oregonian/OregonLive last Wednesday, Hunzeker wrote of the looming negotiations, “Nothing should be off the table. The discussion should be fueled with hard data about crime, staffing, community safety, police-community interactions and alternatives to traditional policing.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who just reassigned himself the role of police commissioner, said Monday his priorities are clear.
“Writ large, my priority is to make sure that we have civilian oversight and accountability of the Portland Police Bureau,” the mayor said.
Wheeler added it’s “assumed” in the city charter that the public has more control and access to information when it comes to, specifically, reprimanding officers who have behaved badly on the job.
“Unfortunately, what happened over a series of many, many years is the Portland City Council has ceded authority to the Portland Police Association through collective bargaining, and so my colleagues and the city council and I are unified that we want to start bringing some of that authority around accountability and oversight back to civilian life,” he said.
When asked whether he believes, broadly, the city’s system of reprimanding officers needs to change, Hunzeker said he does not. He instead endorsed sticking with the status quo, a system that largely relies on Portland’s Independent Police Review, an agency that exists under the umbrella of the City Auditor’s office.
“I trust [IPR] to do their job. I trust them to do the investigation thoroughly for the community that they work for the public interest,” he said.
Hunzeker added calls for more public transparency when it comes to those reprimands fail to take into account the power and, lately, vitriol of social media.
“Not every single aspect of an officer's career is up for statewide or local debate. If we were to open up if they were to publicly list every reprimand of every officer, could you imagine Twitter feeds? Could you imagine the social networking feeds?” Hunzeker asked. “We know today that social media has a way of destroying the simple livelihood of people that didn't do anything wrong, or if they did do something and they're being educated through a reprimand, right? A reprimand is an ability to fix a deficiency.”
PUSHES FOR CHANGE
According to Willamette Week, the Portland Police Association is the “longest continuously operating police union in the country," having been established in 1942.
In the wake of high-profile deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the power of police unions and the contracts they reach with their respective cities became a national point of conversation.
Civil rights leaders and city officials in Portland frequently lob the same complaints at PPA, as their counterparts across the country lob at other police unions: the union has an uncanny ability to shield members, guilty of misconduct, from both discipline and public scrutiny.
“I can point to very specific examples over the last 15 to 20 years where [Portland] mayors and police chiefs have fired officers for misconduct, and then after going through the process dictated through our collective bargaining agreement, those same officers are brought back to the police bureau,” said Mayor Wheeler. “And so at the end of the day, if the mayor and the police chief fire somebody for misconduct, I believe that firing should hold.”
It's something Portlanders, amid months of protests over the course of 2020 sought to change, and they’ve had some wins.
In the summer of 2020, Oregon state lawmakers assembled a People of Color Caucus, aimed at passing a list of bills to change how police agencies do their jobs and dole out discipline. The caucus successfully got a number of new laws passed, including Senate Bill 1604. It bans outside arbitrators from overturning disciplinary actions against police officers if those arbitrators agree, both, that misconduct occurred and that a police department has followed its disciplinary guidelines. That law went into effect in July.
Portland voters also sent a strong message in November, with roughly 82% voting to approve Measure 26-217. The measure amended city code, allowing voters to establish a new oversight committee made up of civilians with the power to subpoena officers to testify and impose discipline, including firing.
On Tuesday, Candace Avalos, the head of Portland’s existing Citizen Review Committee, which oversees cases already heard by IPR but have been appealed, said the new oversight model is still a long way out.
“We're looking at probably no earlier than 18 months to two years before any new system is established,” she said.
A big reason why is, days after voters approved the measure, the Portland Police Association filed a grievance with the city, challenging its legality.
Last week, Hunzeker explained why.
“The measure … was brought on in secrecy, closed doors. The association wasn't a part of it,” he said, before proceeding to take aim at city commissioner and longtime police critic Jo Ann Hardesty. “It was in violation of state law. I'm a police officer. I have to follow state law. Why is it that his city council member, who was so bent on coming up with a measure that is illegal and pushes it out to the voters, improperly informing the voters of what it actually is, pushes it out, and then we're supposed to do nothing?”
Hunzeker added he believes the current discipline model is sufficient and he wouldn’t support implementing the model laid out in Measure 26-217.
“We have an Independent Police Review that we agreed on as an association. The union agreed on it. It's got policies and procedures and is flow follows into place. And it is not under the Portland Police Bureau. It's under the city auditor. It is completely independent,” he said.
Avalos, who is also a co-founder of the Black Millennial Movement, pushed back.
“I don't think it is a genuine response to a year of protests and folks who want racial justice to be realized in the policing institution,” she said. “So, I would encourage the police to really reflect and look around and read the room, and even if you disagree on how we get there, having it be a non-starter that you would want to even change… it is a problem.”
THE EMBARRASSMENT CLAUSE
Under a historic level of public scrutiny, the gap between the city's goals and those of the union are, in some cases, wider than ever. One prime example is something Mayor Ted Wheeler called “the embarrassment clause.”
“The embarrassment clause needs to go away,” the mayor said.
The description refers to article 20.2 in the existing Portland Police Association contract. It states, "If the City has reason to reprimand or discipline an officer, it shall be done in a manner that is least likely to embarrass the officer before other officers or the public."
In July, 2020 IPR director Ross Caldwell told KGW the clause is a key barrier that keeps the details of proven cases of police misconduct, and the discipline that follows, from being released to the public.
“It’s one of the biggest problems that we have,” he said. “And that's something that we are, I think internally, very frustrated by.”
In his interview, Mayor Wheeler elaborated on his assertion that the clause needs to be eliminated.
“The embarrassment clause is ridiculous on its face. When you discipline somebody, it is inherently embarrassing. That's just the way it is,” he said. “I honestly don't know how that embarrassment clause ever made it into a contract, but it should go away.”
On this point, Hunzeker directly pushed back.
“It will never be my job to publicly shame or put someone in a spotlight that might affect their family or their livelihood in a negative way,” he said. “I won't do it for a police officer. I wouldn't do it for a teacher. I wouldn't do it for a doctor. It's just not the right thing to do.”
Hunzeker went on to say he’ll push for transparency in other ways. He wants to form a citizen committee that lets members of the public weigh in on new hires. He also wants to help the city find funding, via grants or otherwise, to outfit officers with body cameras.
But he drew a hard line at eliminating the embarrassment clause.
“There are safeguards involved in state law because of officer's safety and other issues that come up labor law itself … Labor law is something that is out there for the betterment of the employee,” he said. “In a career of 25 years, you might have a mistake. You might have something that you need to be corrected on … It doesn't matter if you're a teacher or a nurse or a doctor. Every occupation has a learning capabilities.”
Hunzeker added he’s “seriously concerned” about how focused the public and the media are on these negotiations.
“If we look at [these negotiations] as an adversarial will, that means we must have a winner and we must have a loser. The word ‘negotiation’ does not mean winner and loser,” he said. “It's a business opportunity for our labor union and the employer to come together and make it better for everyone.”