The Blue’s Dues

After a historic year of protests related to policing, Oregon legislators discuss reform bills

During 2020, Black Lives Matter-related protests throughout the U.S. called for police accountability and reform after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd. In Oregon, protests occurred near daily in Portland and frequently in Eugene. 

With the Oregon Legislature’s 2021 regular legislative session underway, legislators on the Equitable Policing subcommittee are drafting bills that would address policing — such as making police accountable through state lawsuits, regulating crowd control munitions, creating a database of police force and including crisis intervention in police basic training. 

And although it’s in another committee, one bill sponsored by Rep. Janelle Bynum of Clackamas would increase the number of BIPOC mental health providers. She says the concept is supported by many Oregonians, including law enforcement. 

Bynum, who is the subcommittee’s chair, says she has the votes to pass whatever she wants regarding police reform, but she wants to pursue a measured approach. “Good policy doesn’t mean that you just wield your power any way that you wish,” she says. “Good policy means you examine things with the best information you have at the time, you have as many people at the table as reasonably possible and you try to hear different voices.” 

Bynum says House Bill 2928, which could regulate crowd control munitions such as tear gas, was drafted in response to community feedback to her office after many residents in Portland dealt with the effects of police tear gas. As written now, it would regulate the use of chemical incapacitants, kinetic impact projectiles and sound devices by law enforcement. This includes tear gas, rubber bullets and the LRAD sound cannon. 

“The question I’m trying to answer is: What is safe, what is just and what is the collateral damage when you utilize munitions?” Bynum says. She says she heard from police who said munitions were used to avoid “lethal uses of force.” 

Use of crowd control munitions during 2020’s Black Lives Matter and other social justice protests in Portland and Eugene “caused far more damage than it was worth,” she adds.

What Bynum says she wants to do is find ways to address crowd management so interactions between police and protesters don’t result in escalation, ending in an angry group of people or an opportunity for someone to take advantage of the protesters and cause confusion. 

Bynum says while there are Oregonians who want police to recognize their right to protest, there are others in the state who support law enforcement. She says she acknowledges that police officers are in tough situations when protesters throw objects at them. At the same time, when working with police unions, she says she works with the idea of elevating their profession.

“If there is something in the contract that does not support the elevation of the profession, then for me it’s not something I want to continue with,” she says. “I can’t tell them what to do, but I think they’re finding it harder and harder to defend protection that allows them to hurt people or get away with hurting people.” 

Rep. Marty Wilde, who represents the rural and urban parts of Lane and Linn counties, is on the subcommittee. He’s sponsored HB 2934, which removes qualified immunity and increases damages for civil action due to police misconduct.

Wilde says the Brian Babb case influenced him to draft this legislation. On March 30, 2015, after shooting his pistol and calling his therapist, Eugene police showed up to Babb’s house armed and in a BearCat armored vehicle. They shot and killed Babb, who was armed and feeling suicidal. Wilde says the Babb case illustrates shortcomings in the system. 

The family filed a federal lawsuit because the $769,000 cap in state court would have been an undervaluation of Babb’s life, he says. Federal court requires proof of intent and state court needs proof of negligence. The family lost the suit.

“When you look at the bigger picture in the Babb case, there were a lot of mistakes,” he says. “If you were looking back and saying, was there a proximate cause for negligence? Yes, dropping the counselor from the phone call, that was clearly negligence.” 

 With his bill, if there is a judgement for excessive force, the case is then sent to the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPST) to see if there was negligence and intent. 

The subcommittee is still discussing how it’s going to use data to deal with police accountability, Wilde says. One bill would create a “bad boy” list, he says, designed to ensure police officers who are fired for poor conduct don’t flee to another city. Then there’s a database that catalogs all use of force for study purposes to see patterns. Somewhere in the middle, he adds, is having law enforcement in Oregon report data to the FBI, which tracks more serious uses of force. 

Sponsored at the request of  Gov. Kate Brown’s office, HB 2162 directs the DPST to study changes to police officer training. Wilde says the bill’s language is still being worked on, but he’d like to see more crisis intervention training and an additional weeklong training on mental health as part of basic training. “I’d also like to see the implicit bias training. It’s already an option I think for supervisory personnel, but I’d like to see it for all personnel,” he says.

Bynum says her bill to increase the number of BIPOC mental health workers is her signature bill. She says the concept of HB 2949 is supported by many — from activists to police. The bill would use general fund money to provide scholarships for undergraduate students, stipends for graduate students, loan repayments and up to $15,000 in student loan forgiveness. 

“It really is an opportunity for us to finally address what’s been lacking for so long in Oregon, which is access to mental health care,” Bynum says. “In terms of how we respond to the epidemic, to racial strife, to wildfires, mental health response is at the core of what we should be doing.” 

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