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Oregon Lawmakers to Address Coronavirus, Police Reform in Special Legislative Session

— June 23, 2020

Police unions have been critical of suggested reforms, including a curb on the ability of union-appointed arbitrators to overturn disciplinary decisions.

Oregon lawmakers are preparing to begin a special legislative session aimed to curb the spread of coronavirus and initiate police reform.

According to KOIN 6, public hearings began on Monday, with the special session slated to kick off Wednesday. Opening topics will include a ban on commercial and residential evictions, currently set to expire at the end of June. Lawmakers have already proposed pushing the deadline further back, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the nation.

There is no scheduled end date for the session. And it is quite likely particular segments of the session will attract more attention than others.

Law enforcement critics have, for instance, been keen to finger deficiencies in Oregon policing. KATU notes that officers who are accused and found liable for misconduct can, in many cases, be “let off the hook” by police union-appointed arbitrators.

Des Moines residents protest police brutality following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. Image via Flickr/user:Phil Roeder. (CCA-BY-2.0).

Police unions, adds KATU, can unilaterally summon arbitrators to review officers’ disciplinary judgments.

And, in many cases, what the arbitrator decides is what happens—they are fully capable of overturning and significantly limiting the scope of disciplinary decisions, even in cases of severe misconduct.

Some Oregon legislators are now hoping the state’s special session will amend such systemic deficiencies. Sen. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democratic, has repeatedly pushed bills that would overhaul the extant arbitration system. Under Frederick’s plan, arbitrators would be unable to effect judgment changes outside the scope of a pre-defined “discipline guide,” to be agreed upon between police unions and departments during contract negotiations.

“This bill would ensure that when a [discipline] guide or matrix is present, officers are only subject to discipline in a manner that has been agreed upon by both their union and their department,” Frederick said in February. “Should an officer be disciplined in a manner inconsistent with agreed upon matrix, the arbitrator would no longer be bound by the chief’s decision.”

While Sen. Frederick’s bills passed the Senate with unanimous support in 2019 and 2020, both fell flat in the Oregon House. Predictably, they have also been opposed by police unions, which has accused the state legislature of attempting to unnecessarily—and perhaps illegally—interfere in contractual obligations between unions and industry employers.

Daryl Turner, the president of the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs—representing police unions across the state—said Sen. Frederick’s proposal is limited, insofar as it does not necessarily mandate that discipline matrices be agreed upon by both parties.

“The city of Portland could come in and say, we tried to bargain a discipline matrix, we couldn’t get one bargained, so we’re just going to impose one,” Turner said, adding that, in his 10 years as the OCPS’s president, he has anyway rarely seen disciplinary cases move all the way to arbitration.

But the scope of the special session will move beyond union disputes. Sen. Frederick is also backing legislation that will enhance accountability for police brutality—for example, creating a database of officers terminated for gross misconduct, ensuring that terminated officers cannot be re-hired in another jurisdiction.

Another bill demands a ban on the use of rubber bullets and chemical gases as protest suppressants.

“We aren’t dealing with a military situation here as much as some folks would like it to be,” Sen. Frederick said. “I think it speaks to a large issue of militarism and how we deal with public safety and law enforcement and peace officers in general.”


Police reform plan restricts arbitrator from overturning discipline decisions

Oregon Legislature prepares for special session on police reforms, coronavirus

Oregon’s special session to tackle COVID-19, police reform

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