FILE — Portland police precinct

Squad cars sit outside the Portland Police Bureau's Central Precinct on October 24, 2020. The bureau boasts some 900 officers and 300 civilian positions.

(The Center Square) – Oregon lawmakers are close to passing a host of police reform bills this session, one of which would put police data into civilian hands. 

Senate Bill 204 touches on a significant issue of police oversight in the state—access to data. According to one watchdog report, public records requests in Oregon are among the slowest to be granted in the nation.

The bill would narrow the definition of "criminal justice agencies" to rope in civilian oversight agencies empowered by local governments to investigate officer misconduct and review police policies. That includes Portland's civilian police oversight board, whose predecessor saw an exodus of members last fall over differences with Mayor Ted Wheeler.

A few citizens testifying against the bill said sharing police data on such issues as use of force and misconduct with civilians would further politicize the issues and throw accused officers under the bus without trial.

Portland City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero spoke in favor of SB 204 earlier this month, saying more eyes and ears would help speed up police investigations. 

"Direct access to information at the time my investigators need it will ensure that all evidence has been collected and considered," Caballero said. "As anyone who's done a keyword search knows, the investigator is best positioned to recognize documents that are most relevant to her investigation."

According to one member of Portland's oversight board, Ross Caldwell, those documents are hard to get from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). Requesting records can be complicated and time-consuming, Caldwell told state lawmakers on Thursday. Denials are frequent and records can often be incomplete.

"It puts a lot more more burden on the Police Bureau because they have to go through and redact that leaves information out before we did it," Caldwell said. "And then we have to see if we think we've actually got everything and sometimes make additional requests."

Caldwell's remarks raised eyebrows on the House Judiciary Committee, including state Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass. A former parole officer and a past 911 dispatcher, Morgan said the state legislature needs to consider how to better enforce the public records laws on the books.

"I think there's still a policy not being addressed within the agency that you're dealing with, that they're being prohibitive of you getting these police reports," Morgan said. "And that's not acceptable."

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said she would request PPB Chief Chuck Lovell to testify before the committee to explain the matter further. The Center Square has reached out to Lovell's office for comment.

"This does not make any sense to me," Bynum said. "And it doesn't sound like it makes sense to the committee."

The PPB has maintained a frosty relationship with reporters since mass protests against police brutality began in Portland a year ago. In March, PPB officers corralled and photographed journalists during a rally in Portland. This week, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported the bureau also searches through private cellphones daily, according to records obtained by the station.

Records obtained by The Center Square this month show the PPB cost Portland millions of dollars in legal settlements over the past eight years. The bureau is subject to dozens of ongoing lawsuits and federal oversight.

SB 204 passed the Senate by a vote of 20-8 along party lines in April. The bill was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday by 6-4. It awaits assignment to the chamber's floor calendar for a floor vote.

Ten more police bills in the Oregon Legislature, including ones mandating a statewide database on police use of force and reforming hiring practices, have a month to pass both chambers before state lawmakers adjourn on June 28.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.