Legislators Consider Sweeping Police Reform Bills

In the latest response to recent events and public outcry, the legislative committee has convened to discuss police reform proposals for the state of Oregon.   

With protests against police brutality and misconduct in Portland reaching their ninth week, a few ideas have been proposed, including banning law enforcement officers from using tear gas, constraining officers in how they use other crowd-control weapons, and requiring officers to make their names and identification numbers well-displayed.   

Introduced by the Joint Committee on Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform, these drafts would only have impact on state and local law enforcement, not on officers with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies that have been present in Portland of late.   

The first proposal would include banning law enforcement from using tear gas and similar “chemical incapacitants” on crowds, but would permit using pepper spray if a mayor or sheriff declares a riot and crowds are notified. Crowd control officers would be banned from using impact munitions such as rubber bullets except against people who are posing a threat or committing a felony. Acoustic weapons would be limited to a sound pressure level of 105 decibels. Violating the restrictions could mean lawsuits.  

The same bill, Legislative Concept 742, would ban crowd control officers from using force against journalists, legal observers, medical personnel, and people who are homeless. It would also require Oregon agencies to inform federal law enforcement agencies of these requirements and attempt to enforce them.  

Another proposal, Legislative Concept 743, would place new restrictions on Oregon law enforcement uniforms. Specifically, it would require police to wear white or light blue shirts and navy blue pants – typical all black or navy blue uniforms would be prohibited, with specialized duties such as SWAT teams exempt from the rule.   

The bill would also require that officers’ uniforms display their last name, badge number or other identification number, and the word “police” or the words “law enforcement.” Finally, the proposal would require that police vehicles clearly display a unique identification number.   

The next bill, Legislative Concept 745, would alter a recently passed law regarding chokeholds. In their June special session, lawmakers passed a law allowing chokeholds when officers are authorized to use deadly force. LC 745 would remove this exemption from the law, prohibiting all chokeholds.   

Finally, another proposal would clarify the provisions of a new law requiring officers to report when their colleagues commit misconduct. The bill would give authority to the Bureau of Labor and Industries to investigate misconduct allegations in some situations.   

All of these proposed bills address concerns recently raised by police reform advocates in Oregon.   

As reported by OPB News, one of the chairs of the policing committee, Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, said he is “firm” on completely banning chokeholds for police, especially considering that that type of force is too often used on people of color. As a veteran of the Army, Manning also believes that police uniforms are currently too militaristic and need to be changed.   

“I don’t believe that police officers need to look like soldiers,” he said.  

Manning is also arguing for stronger language for the proposed ban on tear gas, which contains a provision that law enforcement “attempt to enforce” state law on federal authorities.   

They have to understand that they cannot come in and just violate state and municipal law under the guise of being part of the federal government,” Manning said. “I understand that none of our officers are going to go on federal property and try to apprehend one of these rogue military, but the state will have a recourse to file a lawsuit.”  

Portland lawyer Alan Kessler called the proposal to require officers to identify themselves by name and number “a breath of non-spicy air.” Kessler has been struggling to find a way for Portland citizens to identify police officers when they commit misconduct and has been mostly unsuccessful.   

OPB reported that Kessler said, “The privileges that we give the police, such as: qualified immunity, exemptions from certain safety laws around weapons and motor vehicles, and the power to arrest, must come with accountability … being able to confidently and quickly identify a police officer in the street or in a vehicle is necessary.”  

The four new proposals are likely to be revised before being taken up, possibly in another special session next month. Lawmakers are also scheduled to take up bills regarding arbitration awards and police disciplinary records.  

By Cara Nixon