In 2001, the Portland City Council established the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee (PCRS). This body, an organ of the Civil Service Commission, is a group of seven Portland residents appointed by the City Council. This subcommittee is charged with reviewing all investigations performed by the Portland Police Department’s Internal Affairs (IA) into complaints from citizens. Once an investigation has been conducted by IA, all appeals have been exhausted, and any disciplinary action executed, the investigation’s record is made available to the PCRS to examine for any improprieties.
This system has been humming along quietly in the background for many years, but with the revival of the Charter Commission in 2020, considering national events at the time, there was no way that the Portland Police Department was getting away without a reexamination of its oversight. The PCRS is a board established by the city’s code, not a part of the Charter, but if voters approve of Question 7, its successor will be embedded into the foundational legal document of the city.
The new body would be called the Civilian Police Review Board, (or simply ‘Review Board’), and it would serve a similar purpose to the PCRS, but with some expanded powers of oversight and accountability to ensure that the citizens of Portland, if ever abused by officers of the law, will be given justice.
While temperatures were running high among activists in 2020, things have somewhat cooled since then. In the Commission’s final report, Portland’s Police Department is described as “excellent”, and thus not needing excessive (and expensive) third-party professional oversight. Portland’s low crime rate is also cited as reason to consider this new Review Board as being an incremental improvement upon, rather than a radical rejection of, the original PCRS.
What are the differences?
Unlike the PCRS, with seven members each handpicked by the City Council, the Review Board will have nine or more members, each serving a three-year term. There can be more members appointed by the City Council, as long as there’s at least nine. However, not all of these members will be voting members, there will also be at least three non-voting members among them. Further, one of the voting members must be appointed by the Mayor. The remaining members, however, both voting and non-voting, will continue to be appointed by the City Council.
The eligibility requirements have also been pared down. To serve on the Review Board, one needs only to be at least 18 years of age and a resident of Portland for at least three months. The current PCRS is not paid, and the proposed Review Board will also not be compensated.
Pathway of Citizen Complaints
Under the current arrangement, complaints begin with the Police Department directly, being submitted to IA by citizens. IA proceeds with a full investigation, appeals are made and exhausted, and final action is taken. It is only after this entire life cycle of complaint and investigation that the PCRS gets involved, reviewing the case record after it has concluded.
In the proposed system, that can still be the process, but in a significant shift, the Review Board will be able to receive citizen complaints directly. The board will have to arrange to establish a process for receiving these, and then the Review Board shall forward all such complaints to IA. It is hoped that citizens who may have felt uncomfortable engaging with the Police Department, even internal affairs, may feel more able to approach a board of citizens with a complaint.
However, outside of this alternative venue for a complaint’s life cycle to begin, the Review Board will be much like the PCRS in that after this stage, the file will not be directed towards them again until a full investigation, appeals, and action is undertaken by IA. While the PCRS was engaged only at the very end, the Review Board can be engaged both at the very beginning and the very end.
Reports and Hearings
The Review Board will be required to hold a public hearing at least once per year, receiving citizen comments and engaging with the general public. An annual report will also be presented, sharing data about the count and kind of complaints received by the board, and any recommendations formulated related to policy for the City Council to consider or funding for the Police Department. This is a formalization of the requirements which had been in place for the PCRS, and a slight expansion in the scope of the Board’s assigned area of analysis.
To assist the Review Board with these increased demands, the Charter also authorizes the hiring of some essential staff members, including a Community Liaison and Police Liaison, to maximize transparency and communication between the police and citizens. Furthermore, a technical advisor shall be assigned to support the Review Board when and where necessary.
For all the attention consumed by issues relating to police oversight through 2020 and 2021, the reforms settled upon by the Charter Commission are decidedly less-than-radical. Entrenching and elevating the board into the Charter, subtly and thoughtfully expanding its remit, and allocating greater resources to its purposes are perhaps incremental steps.
Why might you vote in favor? – If you believe that, even if Portland is better than most cities, every municipality should put a well-resourced board of citizens in such a position to effectively review the behavior of law enforcement, and their internal investigations, in the event of a breach of conduct. While the old subcommittee may not have been disastrously inadequate, the occasion of the Charter Commission calls for reinforcing it with additional resources, a more robust and transparent mode of communication, and direct engagement with civilians to assure them of the city’s good faith.
Why might you vote against? – If you feel as though the current system is working just fine, thank you very much. Portland doesn’t have a police brutality problem, the number of civilian complainants is small, and they are typically revealed as cranks. This reform would be a case study for Mainers reacting to problems elsewhere with changes here. It would be an exercise in wasteful spending and vacuous grandstanding.
Alternatively – If you think that this is all so much rearranging deck chairs. The rot of American law enforcement runs deep, deeper than the sort of surface-level misconduct boards like this are supposed to review. Bodies such as this exist to sedate the public, putting a smiling face on brutal machinery. Defunding the violent police system and building from the ground-up an ethical, equitable system of community safety and harm reduction is what is needed. Enacting this wouldn’t bring that world closer, it would make the chains of tyranny softer on the wrist.
Background ~ What is the Charter Commission?
1 ~ The Land Acknowledgement
2 ~ Governance
3 ~ Elections
4 ~ Voting
5 ~ The School Budget
6 ~ Peaks Island
7 ~ Police Oversight
8 ~ The Ethics Commission
Conclusion & Opinion