Portland’s city manager and the police chief agreed this week to add a citizen member to an internal police panel that evaluates use of force by city police officers, but without an open application process, drawing criticism from some residents and a citizen oversight committee who want more transparency in the process.

Adding a citizen to the department’s internal use-of-force committee partially adopts a suggestion by the city’s Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, which reviews some internal affairs complaints against officers and makes recommendations for improving the relationship between residents and police.

Some on the committee and members of the public at a subcommittee meeting Wednesday night were not pleased with City Manager Jon Jennings’ modifications. The oversight committee urged him to reconsider granting himself unilateral appointment power without adding measures to make the process more transparent.

“The PCRS stands strong in staying with its original recommendation that the City Manager propose a change to the City Code in line with our recommendation that two citizens be appointed to the Use of Force Committee, and be appointed through the City Council process rather than only be appointed by the City Manager,” the committee wrote in a memo to Jennings crafted Wednesday night.

In July, following massive protests around the country and in Portland after George Floyd died in the custody of the Minneapolis police, the oversight group issued a list of recommendations. The oversight group has no real power to demand changes, and its recommendations can be adopted or discarded at will by the city manager.

One of its recommendations was adding citizen members to the use-of-force committee, with the new members selected by the City Council, a process that would require a change of city ordinance. Short of that, the oversight group suggested Jennings make immediate appointments on an interim basis.

Jennings opted to make the appointments himself, but the unilateral appointment authority he granted himself may be permanent. He will select one new member in consultation with police Chief Frank Clark, he wrote in a memo this week to the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee. That process was agreed to after discussing it with the two unions that represent patrol and command officers and with unidentified members of the public, Jennings wrote.

“Given that the (use of force) committee is an internal group working to improve operational matters, I believe this falls more appropriately under my administrative authority,” Jennings wrote. “The citizen member will still be able to provide the critical outside perspective that the PCRS identified as valuable, and this allows me to move forward with implementing your recommendation on a much shorter timeline.”

Jennings did not respond to questions about what criteria he will use or how much power the police department has to reject a nominee. He also did not say why he decided on a single citizen member instead of two, and whether police unions or other groups pushed back against the original proposal for two members.

Jennings also would not answer why the new citizen member’s training will be based entirely on police policies and tactics, without mention of a civil rights component – a suggestion the oversight committee posed in its memo this week.

During the oversight meeting, about half a dozen members of the public spoke against Jennings’s plan. One was Christiana Marvray, an organizer with Portland-based antiracism group Black POWER.

“We are so, so, so tired of telling this city exactly what we need for accountability, for transparency for truth, for speaking for ourselves, and time and time again, to be ignored, to be told we don’t know what we’re talking about,” Marvray said.

Political leaders in the city fail to listen to their constituents, and then act surprised when they are confronted in public meetings, Marvray said.

“The best thing I can say is to listen to us,” she said. “And if any of this is new to you, you’re not doing your job.”

Leo Hilton, a resident of Belfield Street, said Jennings’ response was an insult.

“The response from the manager is frankly unacceptable, and I think we know from his record that he cannot select a neutral person to this committee, especially if he’s coordinating with the chief of police,” Hilton said.

“Progress for the sake of saying that we made progress I don’t think is acceptable. Two people was more than a reasonable request, and we should see a single person as an insult to the hard work of this committee,” he said.

Last year, Portland police responded to more than 80,000 calls, resulting in 65 reported use-of-force incidents. In all, 101 officers submitted accounts of those 65 incidents, and all involved non-deadly force.

Each use-of-force case can include the use of multiple techniques to bring a suspect under police control. The most common was using an officer’s hands – 70 times; then the use of body weight – 68 times; followed by takedown maneuvers – used 36 times in 2019.

Data released by Portland police shows Black people are subject to use-of-force at elevated rates, based on population.

Between 2016 and 2019, the department recorded 65 to 90 use-of-force cases each year. Black people represented between 16.6 percent and 26.1 percent of those incidents, according to the data, while 7 to 8 percent of the city’s population was Black during that period.

Officers in 2019 also began to more extensively document verbal de-escalation techniques in line with a department-wide directive; last year, Portland officers documented 60 uses of verbal de-escalation techniques, up from 22 reports in 2018.

Jennings wrote that the citizen member will receive extensive training from police on use of force policies and will stand on equal footing with the other members. The new member will also be required to go on one ride-along with officers within the first six months and complete one ride-along annually after that. Jennings will have the power to dismiss the citizen member for “any reason that is not arbitrary,” including failure to meet training standards, or for breaking confidentiality provisions.

The police use-of-force committee meetings are not open to the public. By policy, Portland police evaluate every use of force above un-resisted hand-cuffing of a suspect. The committee consists of command staff and internal affairs officers, union representatives, the police staff attorney, any subject-matter experts deemed necessary for the meeting, and now, a “neutral member of the public,” according to a revised version of the policy governing the committee.

Its work focuses on a dozen criteria, including whether the officer attempted to de-escalate a situation prior to using force, and whether an officer’s actions contributed to a situation in which force was used. It is part of an extensive reporting and oversight structure within the police department spelled out in policy, but that remains out of public view because documents incidents are considered confidential.

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