SALEM — The Oregon Senate on Friday unanimously passed a bill that makes it easier to uphold discipline against police by lessening the power of arbitrators.
The measure, which moves to the House, is one in a package of police reform measures before Oregon lawmakers during the special session that began this week. It passed the upper chamber following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was handcuffed and died last month after a white Minneapolis police officer held a knee to his neck.
“This bill is a problem solving effort,” Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said on the Senate floor. “It is an effort to create trust, fairness and transparency in government. This bill goes hand in hand in the procedural justice movement in 21st century policing and restorative justice commitments that have been made to our constituents.”
Police unions now can call upon an arbitrator to review discipline handed down to a police officer and overturn disciplinary decisions. Arbitrators have reversed high-profile officer dismissals in Oregon before.
Senate Bill 1604 restricts what arbitrators can do in disciplinary cases and binds them to rule within the discipline guide.
“The non-binding nature of agreed upon discipline guides, and the complete lack thereof, is a policy failure that we now have the opportunity to remedy,” Frederick said.
This is the third time the bill has passed in Senate, but during the two previous times came to a halt in the House of Representatives.
Lawmakers will discuss and vote on other reform bills throughout Friday, including restricting the use of chokeholds, creating a statewide online database of discipline records and requiring officers to intervene and report a fellow officer engaged in misconduct.
Summary of bills
Here’s a summary of the police accountability bills as amended in committee, after about an hour of testimony Thursday and some on Tuesday, before the session started:
•Arbitration: Senate Bill 1604 bars a labor arbitrator from lessening the discipline against a police officer if the arbitrator concludes that misconduct is consistent with the finding of the agency that employed the officer. This bill passed the Senate in 2019 and 2020, but died without a vote in the House.
•Deadly force investigations: House Bill 4201, as amended, creates a joint legislative committee to review how complaints about police use of force are investigated, how investigations into use of deadly force are conducted, and how independent reviews of police use of force should be done. The amendment substitutes for the original bill, which would have transferred responsibility for use-of-force investigations from district attorneys in Oregon’s 36 counties to the state attorney general.
•Chokeholds: House Bill 4203, as amended, bans chokeholds or similar techniques unless an officer is faced with using deadly force as defined by a 1971 law. The original bill would have banned such techniques outright.
•Officer duty to intervene and report: House Bill 4205, as amended, requires officers to intervene when they witness misconduct, which includes “unjustified or excessive force,” unless they cannot do it safely — and to report such misconduct to a supervisor. The original bill would have required a state agency to adopt such rules.
•Database: House Bill 4207 directs the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to create a statewide database of disciplinary records of officers, and certifications, suspensions and revocations.
•Use of tear gas: House Bill 4208, as amended, restricts police from using tear gas except to quell a riot. It also requires police to announce the use of tear gas, allow time for the crowd to disperse, and repeat the announcement before its use. The original bill would have banned the use of tear gas outright.
Local law enforcement responses
La Grande Police Chief Gary Bell said it is too soon to speculate and comment on any of the proposed reforms.
“I have been monitoring the police reform discussion the Oregon Legislature will be considering and feel that the details in any adopted language will be important for meaningful reforms,” Bell said. “My hope is that any reforms will serve the public interest and aid us in our delivery of service to our community.”
Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen, who is up for reelection, said he supports the legislation that is backed by the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association. He said while officers can hold their individual beliefs, he believes most officers fall in line with his and the association’s thoughts.
“I personally want citizens to feel safe with how our deputies perform and treat the public and of course how they handle any use of force situation,” Rasmussen said.
On House Bill 4201, Union County sheriff’s deputy Cody Bowen, who is a candidate for sheriff, said changing who investigates cases of the use of force likely will not change the national situation.
When it comes to chokeholds, Bowen said the actions of a few officers have cast a large shadow on police as a whole.
“Like any training technique that officers are taught it can be done correctly and effectively or done wrong and cause serious problems,” Bowen said. “That falls back on the character of the person, not the tool used.”
Bowen also said he considers tear gas a “great tool when used correctly to deescalate certain situations.” Although it can cause injury, he said, “that usually occurs when people refuse to follow lawful orders and disperse.”
Law enforcement also should have the same rights as any citizen when it comes to criminal sentencing, Bowen said, including reduction or sentencing structure but no special treatment.
Peter Wong for the Oregon Capital Bureau and Observer reporter Sabrina Thompson contributed to this article.