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Five months in, Portland police union contract negotiations head to mediation

The Portland Police Association announced Monday that it is taking its ongoing contract negotiations with the city to mediation. The move means the partially public negotiations will now move behind closed doors, as the two sides make their cases on the thorniest issues that remain unresolved.

“After 11 bargaining sessions and over 150 days at the bargaining table, we have made progress on a successor collective bargaining agreement—but not enough progress,” the union’s announcement reads.

Under collective bargaining laws, either the city of Portland or the police union can opt to seek mediation after 150 days of contract negotiations.

In a press release following PPA’s announcement, Chief Deputy City Attorney Heidi Brown said the city respects the state’s labor laws, but she noted mediation was not the city’s preference.

“The City is disappointed that bargaining, including open bargaining, will no longer continue, as we believe the bargaining process was working well,” Brown said in a written statement. “The parties discussed many significant issues, and we were engaged and finding places of agreement, as well as areas needing further discussion.”

Over the past five months of negotiations, lawyers representing the city and the union have reached tentative agreement on 30 articles of the current 68-article contract. Many of the agreed-upon changes are minor updates to language, such as removing references to outdated computer systems, rewriting sections to include the bureau’s new unarmed “Public Safety Support Specialists,” and making some tweaks to how officers are paid when working in a position typically reserved for a higher ranking officer. The two sides also agreed to remove gender pronouns and ensure that the term spouse includes domestic partners.

The private mediation process lasts a minimum of 15 days. If the two sides don’t reach agreement, an arbitrator will review each sides’ “last best offer” and pick one side or the other. That decision will be legally binding.

If the city and police union seek to avoid arbitration, they will need to come to mutual terms on a number of issues. Among them, the city is seeking to limit officers’ outside employment. Currently, private companies like Apple can hire Portland police officers as security, a lucrative assignment managed by the police union. Portland hopes to restrict outside work to community and civic events within the city, such as professional sporting events, and to bring it under police bureau control in order to better manage officer workload.

The city also wants to revamp the current discipline guide outlining how officers are disciplined and for what. The current guide isn’t in the contract and is merely advisory, which is how the union prefers to keep it.

That poses a problem for the city. When an officer is disciplined — whether for showing up late too often, being dishonest in a police report or killing someone on the job — the police chief metes out discipline in accordance with that guide. If the union decides to challenge the chief’s decision, an outside arbitrator reviews the case. State lawmakers passed a bill last summer requiring the arbitrator to rely on an agency’s discipline matrix so long as it was agreed to in bargaining.

“If someone engages in misconduct, there has to be some level of accountability,” said Steven Schuback, an attorney hired by Portland to lead the contract negotiations. “Generally, there should be a known and well-founded sanction, action, remedial course for conduct that occurs so people understand consequences.”

The city’s proposed guide establishes various levels of misconduct. The top tier are the most egregious violations, which could lead to firing an officer. That tier would include commission of a felony, public corruption, or reckless misconduct resulting in death or injury.

“There are just some actions where you’re not going to remain a police officer,” Schuback said.

A middle tier would result in a demotion or a suspension, paired with corrective action. The bottom tier is primarily administrative, something like a supervisor sits down with the offending officer to explain a policy violation while reiterating bureau directives.

Schuback said that in most instances, officers aren’t terminated and that it’s in the city’s best interest to correct behavior and improve officers.

“With these objectives, we improve trust with the community. And we also improve trust between the employees and the employers,” he said. “When employees understand the consequences, see the consistency, have faith in the system, then we build trust with the employees and the employer.”

PPA President Daryl Turner objected to parts of the city’s proposal, saying the city was blurring the lines between a mistake and misconduct.

“Obviously a police officer that is involved in misconduct which is malicious, which is on purpose, and even sometimes which is lazy, is misconduct,” Turner said. “However, a mistake in a report writing area shouldn’t be seen as misconduct but as a policy violation.”

Even if the new discipline guide is added to the contract, an arbitrator is only bound by it if the original finding is upheld. It doesn’t prevent an arbitrator from overturning the police chief’s findings that an infraction occurred, as was the case when an arbitrator overturned then-Portland Police Bureau Chief Mike Reese’s decision to fire Officer Ron Frashour for shooting and killing Aaron Campbell in 2010. The arbitrator reinstated Frashour with back pay. And in 2003, an arbitrator reinstated Officer Scott McCollister with back pay after McCollister was suspended for shooting and killing Kendra James.

The police union also proposed a body-worn camera program during closed-door negotiations April 21. Of the 75 largest cities in the United States, Portland is the only police department without body-worn cameras. Money for a program was allocated in the 2016-17 budget, but the program was scrapped amidst pandemic budget cuts and pushback from activists and some elected officials who argued the cameras accomplish little in the way of meaningful accountability or changed behavior.

There is data to support that claim. But there is also data showing a transparent body camera program can improve trust with the community.

Under the police association’s proposal, the union would be the only organization outside the police bureau freely allowed to review footage. The union’s proposal also allowed officers to review footage before writing reports, giving statements or testifying, a common – although controversial – aspect of many cities’ body camera programs.

A sticker covers the nametag of a Portland police officer during protests against police brutality and systemic racism in Portland, Ore., June 15, 2020. Discipline of officers is one of several sticking points in current negotiations between the city and the Portland police union.
Jonathan Levinson /
A sticker covers the nametag of a Portland police officer during protests against police brutality and systemic racism in Portland, Ore., June 15, 2020. Discipline of officers is one of several sticking points in current negotiations between the city and the Portland police union.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting