Portland law and order may change under Trump

For two years, the U.S. Department of Justice has directed changes to how police officers do their jobs in Portland

Donald Trump sits down with Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes airing Sunday, November 13, 2016. (CBS News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The election of Republican Donald Trump could directly affect how the Portland Police Bureau audits and trains officers in the use of force.

For two years, the U.S. Department of Justice has directed changes to how police officers do their jobs in Portland, through a court-monitored agreement with the city and its police.

Now, as a result of Trump’s campaign promises, observers widely expect the federal agency to take its foot off the gas and give the city a lot more freedom. People disagree whether that’s a good or a bad thing.

Here’s a look at what’s happened in Portland so far, and what to expect from the Trump administration on civil rights and police oversight.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the city of Portland, alleging a pattern or practice of unconstitutional use of force against mentally ill people by Portland police.

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In 2014, the city entered into a settlement with the DOJ agreeing to make changes in training, policies and oversight. Since then, there have been two rounds of yearly status reports and hearings, showing the bureau making progress in some areas but not others.

In a hearing last month, federal Judge Michael Simon raised the question of whether a new administration might change the direction of federal oversight. Jonas Geissler, a DOJ civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C., responded in the negative.

However, noted Ashlee Albies, a lawyer for the Albina Ministerial Alliance, that was when pollsters had widely been calling the race for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“I think at the time people were assuming that Hillary was going to win,” said Albies, whose client is a party to the federal case.

A U.S. DOJ spokesman declined to comment.

Trump has blasted the Black Lives Matter movement and argued that the federal government should stay out of local police matters. His nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to head the justice department has triggered concerns that DOJ civil rights lawyers could resign en masse.

In the wake of Trump’s election, “we are obviously hopeful that there is not a widespread de-emphasis on these types of cases,” Albies said. “But I think a large part of it is going to depend on how the next couple of months go and how the next year goes.”

Her client, Dr. LeRoy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, is not so hopeful, saying he expects DOJ to make “civil rights a lesser priority.”

Will Aitchison, the national police union lawyer and consultant whose partner represents the Portland Police Association, has been tracking the situation as well.

“There’s definitely the anticipation that Trump will take the position that the Department of Justice overreached in its civil rights enforcement … and instead was trying to set national standards for policing,” he said.

At the last federal court hearing, attorneys discussed how the city had failed to maintain a functioning Community Oversight Advisory Board, intended to be a gateway for community feedback on the agreement. Dozens of recommendations made by the board have not been implemented or even responded to by the city.

Judge Simon repeatedly noted the DOJ could file a motion asking him to take steps to enforce the agreement or even beef it up, with the addition of a stronger federal monitor.

But once Trump takes office, that is unlikely to happen, observers agree.

That won’t make everyone unhappy. Portland’s police have opposed some of the changes being made under federal authority. Earlier this year, a survey of Portland officers found that 84 percent of them didn’t think federal oversight would improve policing.

One reason for officers’ discontent has been DOJ attorneys’ push for the bureau to change its use of force policies to require officers to use the least level of force reasonably possible. Officers feel the new standard goes further than the one set by the U.S. Supreme Court, and would install a level of second-guessing that could cause officers to make bad decisions in the heat of the moment.

Dan Handelman, of the group Portland Copwatch, said his group is concerned the federal government’s required fixes have caused Portlanders’ other priorities, such as an end to racial profiling, to take a back seat.

One example is the federal requirement that appeals hearings of officer misconduct findings be heard in 21 days — a timeline that’s unreasonable and unrealistic, according to Handelman.

“Here’s these people in Washington, D.C., and they have these legal best practices and concepts, but they don’t necessarily work in Portland,” Handelman said.

“Certainly it’s a good thing that Portland came under scrutiny,” Handelman said. “The problem of the federal government being here is that the city is only responding to things that the DOJ says are the highest priority.”