A committee appointed by the mayor and city councilors to address systemic racism in Portland is recommending stronger citizen oversight of police and creating new city departments to oversee human rights and racial equity initiatives.

The group also is calling for a new team outside the police department to respond when people experience a mental health crisis or need help that doesn’t require law enforcement.

The Racial Equity Steering Committee will present an interim report and recommendations at Monday’s City Council meeting. The group has been meeting since October and was originally slated to finish its work by Jan. 22, but needed more time. The council granted an extension to April 1, on condition that the group issue an interim report this month.

Mayor Kate Snyder and councilors appointed the committee following a series of Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the summer, and provided the group funding for both an independent facilitator and for stipends for the members. The committee was panned by activists, who instead urged the council to adopt reforms called for by a local activist group, Black POWER. Those reforms included firing City Manager Jon Jennings, defunding the police and refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Lelia De Andrade, who co-chairs the equity committee with City Councilor Pious Ali, said she’s proud of the work so far, given the daunting task laid before them amid a pandemic, which has made it more difficult to get to know fellow committee members. She said the committee’s work will not end racial disparities in the city and instead must be the beginning of a sustained effort by the city to root out systemic racism.

“If a group of 13 strangers meeting an hour and a half once a week could dismantle institutional racism it would have already been done by now,” De Andrade said.

The city’s committee has agreed on four recommendations so far and has outlined additional tasks to be completed in the coming weeks. Several of the recommendations, including creation of new new city departments, could face some resistance from city staff and councilors, who have already warned of a difficult budget year ahead.

One recommendation would dissolve the city’s Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, which has little oversight of the police department and is limited to reviewing the timeliness, objectivity, fairness and thoroughness of investigations into alleged police misconduct. The subcommittee has sought more oversight power over police affairs, but has faced resistance from Jennings. Jennings agreed to study racial disparities in arrests and use of force and conduct regular bias reviews, but said expanding the subcommittee’s authority would raise contractual issues with the city’s police personnel.

Instead of the existing board, the city should create a new police oversight panel that is “transparent; provides true accountability; and is open to all members of Portland’s community, regardless of their experiences with the criminal justice system,” according to the equity committee’s report. Anyone who has been arrested or has had a family member arrested by, or who has filed a complaint against Portland police is not allowed to serve under the current rules.

The group recommends creating a Department of Racial Equity within city government and a permanent Racial Equity Board of volunteers outside of city government to continue the Racial Equity Steering Committee’s work on an ongoing basis, by evaluating city policies for “covert and/or overt racism.”

It says the equity department should be staffed with a director and at least two staff positions. In addition to being a clearing house for the permanent equity board, community and city staff, the department would compile racial demographics for General Assistance and other Health and Human Services programs, mediate conflicts between clients and the city, analyze data and policies and publish an annual report about its activities and findings.

And the city committee recommends that police, city staff and councilors undergo a racial equity audit and annual racial equity and anti-bias training.

In addition, the group recommends the city change how it responds to people in crisis because of mental illness, substance abuse or other reasons. While such calls are now often handled by police officers, the group recommends the city support creating a new crisis response team within an existing social services organization. That team could work with police, but would not be part of the department, the report says.

A similar model – the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, program – is used in Eugene, Oregon. The program was launched in 1989 by the White Bird Clinic, a nonprofit serving low-income and homeless individuals. The program sends two-person teams – a medic and a trained crisis worker – on mental health crisis calls to conduct conflict resolution, welfare checks, substance use assistance and address suicide threats, among other things. Neither team member is armed, or a law enforcement officer.

Another recommendation would have the city create and implement the “Framework for an Equitable COVID-19 Homelessness Plan” to provide support during the pandemic and future public health crises.

Other possible recommendations being considered in the coming weeks include:

  • Reserving 10 percent of all city contracts for socially and economically disadvantaged minority-owned businesses;
  • Reviewing all criminal trespass orders issued at emergency shelters, public places and private properties to see whether there has been a disparate impact on historically racially marginalized communities or people with substance use and mental health diagnoses;
  • Establishing, among other things, a municipal human rights commission, a partnership between the city and the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce to hire more people of color, and renaming city streets to honor Portland’s communities of color.

Snyder said the interim recommendations justify the council’s decision to create a special committee comprised of people with personal and professional experience in racial equity to lead the effort. However, she said, it’s too soon to say which proposals she or the council may support, because some of the initiatives, such as creating and staffing new city departments, will cost money.

Snyder said she hopes the committee will agree to hear from city staff about ways the city is working to address these issues.

“They all require a deeper dive in terms of what’s currently being done that might respond to some of these recommendations and what’s not being done and how can we do it, whether it’s capacity or funding,” she said.

De Andrade said the committee understands that some of their recommendations would require additional investments by the city and that the pandemic has created a difficult budget environment. However, members feel strongly that those investments need to be made for the city to make meaningful progress.

“This is all about priorities. There’s never enough money,” De Andrade said. “When it comes to this kind of work, I don’t know there’s ever a time where people say, ‘We have plenty of money to address racial equity.’ There’s always a competing interest or different priorities. And it comes down to saying, ‘This is critical. This is for the well-being of our city. We have to make this work.’ ”

 

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