The Legislative Special Session on Policing: A Guide to Getting Engaged

You may know that there’s a special committee that will inform the special legislative session on matters of Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform, chaired by Representative Janelle Bynum and Senator James Manning, both vocal members and leaders in the House and Senate POC Caucus’, respectively. It’s because of all the activists who are engaging constructively to have your voices heard and make more progress on these issues than any time in recent history that this historic special session is happening, even if the dates have yet to be announced. 

We have done half a dozen interviews on the subject and talked to about a dozen sources. What we know is that there are huge discussions and decisions being made in the Oregon legislature — impacting police practices, budgets, rules, and more. But things are happening so quickly, and with so little advance information, that fewer citizens and unelected humans are getting engaged. Whereas 700 people showed up to testify at City Hall on the Portland Police Budget, nowhere near that number have engaged on a half dozen policy that will impact police bureaus and Sheriffs offices in all 36 Oregon Counties. 

Here’s some context of what’s going on, and how you can engage, if you so choose. This should serve as a resource to come back to and utilize in pushing for the change you want to see. 

WHEN: Right now, and next week. The legislature hasn’t publicly announced the hearings yet, but the Co-Chair told us that the public hearings will be next week. And the special session is likely to be called with little advance warning after that — last time, there was only about 2 weeks notice. And, at that, the last Special Session only lasted 2 days, so we need to act fast. 

WHAT: Policies on policing being pushed & discussed. 

Here’s a list from Co-Chair Bynum (paraphrased from a on-air interview for clarity): 

  1. Close the loopholes on arbitration (SB 1604)
  2. Use of force, banning chokeholds, ensuring the health and safety of anyone that you’ve arrested, or is in your custody. 
  3. Peaceful protest, banning the use of tear gas and understanding what the range of nonlethal munitions looks like and deciding as a community whether we wanted to continue that whole range of choices. 
  4. Closing up the duty to intervene and establish what the responsibilities of supervisors is
  5. There’s a piece in the Colorado bill, SB 20-217, which authorizes the Attorney General to investigate patterns and practices of discrimination and disparate outcomes. There’s a piece in that bill that would let us look at the agency level. Right now we have no ability to look at agencies that are mistreating people.
  6. Community policing and independent review boards, exploring that concept and giving independent police review boards teeth and all the tools they would need. 
  7. The demilitarization of police including their uniforms and training practices
  8. Looking at hiring practices and standards, looking at statewide psych standards and polygraphs
  9. How we use and recruit reserve officers. 

According to activists, here are the priorities: 

  •  Ending qualified immunity
  •  Changing Oregon’s use of force statute — to make sure that force is used only as last resort after other options are exhausted
  •  Truly independent investigations — such as by the Attorney General’s office. For people who followed George Floyd’s case, there were not arrests made of the officers until the Attorney General took the case from the local District Attorney. 
  •  Ban (not limit) techniques that restrict air or blood to the head.  
  •  Demilitarization of police — by way of uniforms and equipment

That leaves the question of funding–which drew so much attention in City Hall and in protests around the country. 

Note that 90% of the State General Fund goes to the following three things: Education, Health and Human Services, and Corrections & Prisons: Here’s a helpful way to remember: The State Educates, Medicates, and Incarcerates. There are State Police, but they are not a big percent of the budget. Prisons are. Oregon spends more on prisons than on higher education. So far, legislators have not prioritized prison reform in the special session. For that issue to be picked up, that will likely wait until the next legislative session in February and require significant public push to be made a priority.  

WHERE: It’s the State legislature. That’s normally in Salem, but now it’s happening mostly online. 

Before getting into how to engage, Let’s start with the essentials, which we can all learn easily from SchoolHouse Rock. 

First a bill goes to committee. They can (and often do) end there. Usually it takes five steps:

1) A Bill starts in a chamber’s (the House or Senate) committee related to it’s topic and must be passed through a vote there. 

1a) If the Bill requires state funding, it needs to go to the chamber’s Ways and Means Committee, and again be discussed and passed there. 

2) Get it passed on the floor in the chamber it started — the full House, for example.

3) The committee in the other chamber, like the Senate, and Ways and Means there, if applicable. 

4) Get it passed on the floor in the other chamber, say the Full Senate.

5) Get it signed by the Governor.

To get something passed in the legislature, you have to win at all five of those places. To stop something, you only need to block in one of those places. That’s a key reason why it’s hard to change laws

This time it’s different. 

  • Also, for the special session, they’re using a Joint Committee, It’s called the Joint Committee On Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform. So if that committee moves it along, it will go to both the House and Senate floor for a vote. 
  • Usually the legislature wouldn’t be in session until next February. But now there is a special session, inspired by national and local efforts to protect Black Lives. 
  • Another way it’s different: Once a bill gets out of committee to the floor, it will be hard to vote no on. And a Democratic Governor won’t veto it. 

So whatever that committee sends to the floor will probably pass and become law. This gives the POC Caucus huge power — – especially Rep. Janelle Bynum, Sen. James Manning, and Sen. Lew Frederick. They sit on that committee. Bynum and Manning are the co-chairs.  

The crux of this is though: if the bill is not on the Joint Committee’s agenda, it’s very difficult for it to get introduced in a very short special session (or even in a regular session for that matter, but that’s another topic for another day). 

Once that bill is in the committee, without public comment, it is very likely to become law or to be amended to meet objections in the room, the vast majority of which will usually be to weaken the bill or add conditions. 

WHO: The clear word on the street is that the People of Color Caucus is running the show in the Legislative Committee and the list of proposals that will make it to the floor. 

  • Rep. Janelle Bynum — An engineer by training, and now owns 4 McDonald’s franchises with her husband, representing Happy Valley. Talking to Rep. Bynum, she noted there wasn’t as much public engagement in the State Legislature as in cities. She won broad-based support for her package, after amendments that Rep. Marty Wilde acknowledged weakened the bills. Bynum worked closely alongside  district attorneys, Sheriffs offices, civil rights lawyers, and police chiefs. And she made the point that she was being asked to carry a lot of the burden for a problem of systemic racism she didn’t cause. 
  • Senator James Manning a former corrections officer, police officer, military veteran, and former chair of the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs, representing Eugene. He was named the Senate Co-Chair after the previous Special Session.
  • Senator Lew Frederick also serves on the committee. He’s a former newscaster and worked for 13 years at Portland Public Schools and represents parts of  N/NE Portland and he’s submitted 59 bills on police reform over the past 10 years, the most prolific legislator to do so. 
  • There are other members of the committee — you can find them on OLIS. And there are other members of the POC Caucus, some information on their work is here. 

HOW: So how can citizens and activists and un-elected human beings engage? 

  • Communicate with the POC caucus. They will wonder if there is grassroots support to go big. If there will be allies, and not just among the folks who lobby the legislature all the time, then they have the backing to do more. 
  • Posting on social media and tagging legislators can also get the attention of those members on social media. 
  • Calling & Emailing legislators — particularly one’s own. You can find yours here. 
    • Especially important: Writing your own emails! This station has several folks involved who have worked in (and served for that matter) in the legislature, and we can personally testify that while sending a template email is better than nothing, it will not be as impactful as offices can set up filters to funnel those into specific folders, and usually won’t read what they recognize as a form more than 1 or 2 times. When you write your own, you capture the attention of the legislator and their staff. 
    • If you are their constituent, say so! Legislators and their staff are trained to be especially watchful and responsive to their own constituents concerns. After all, that’s who they’re elected to represent. 
  • You can testify before the committee. Their meeting schedule is here. 
    • Better yet, organize a group of people, or push the committee testimony sign up to large groups. 1 person’s testimony is powerful, but just as we saw with Portland City Council a few weeks ago, the more people, the more impactful. 
    • This is also an incredible opportunity: because of COVID restrictions, all testimony is online. That means the normally huge barrier of driving to Salem in the middle of the workweek is mostly gone. Take advantage of it. 
  • Posting on social media and tagging legislators can also get the attention of those members on social media. Look for official government accounts (or personal if you actually know them), not campaign ones. Legislative staff legally cannot engage with campaigns, even for the same legislator, and that legislator also cannot engage while working on state time. 

WHY: Well, it’s our Democracy folks. We can throw stuff at the TV screen about presidential politics. We can send angry or clever or even informational tweets. But we can also engage in the people’s business.

Got questions about this? Did we miss something? Leave a comment here give us a call at 503-233-XRAY, or send an email to thanks@xray.fm and we’ll help explain what this all means and help you find your way. 

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