Portland Shells Out Thousands For Homeless to Help Shape City's Police Disciplinary System

City says its 'houseless community' is needed to make 'systemic changes' to law enforcement oversight

Protester argues with Portland, Ore., police officer (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
September 18, 2023

Portland, Ore., shelled out thousands of taxpayer dollars to a group of homeless people to have them evaluate the city's new Police Accountability Commission after the city said that its "houseless community" should shape the way cops are disciplined.

Portland's Police Accountability Commission hired a marketing firm in June and July to hold focus groups with participants from "communities that have been historically underrepresented … or who are vulnerable to police misconduct or discrimination," according to a commission report. The city held one session at a local homeless shelter, which invited "twenty participants from the houseless community" to provide their "thoughts and ideas about the police" and the city's disciplinary policies for law enforcement officers. Each participant received a $200 gift card, meaning the city paid at least $4,000 to hold the focus group at the homeless shelter.

The revelation provides a window into how Portland and other left-wing cities are working to make "systemic changes" to their police discipline policies in the wake of George Floyd's death. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Portland voters approved a ballot measure to establish a new Police Accountability Commission, which has spent nearly two years designing a new system to replace the city's police review board. The new board will have broad power to subpoena police records, investigate police conduct, and discipline officers.

Law enforcement veterans are barred from serving on the board, as are their immediate family members. The city is shelling out thousands of dollars, however, to receive feedback from law enforcement opponents. In addition to the homeless group, the city sought out focus group participants who have a "history of working with over-policed communities," as well as "equity practitioners" and "anyone who has witnessed or experienced police misconduct."

A majority of those participants, the commission concluded in its report, told the city that its police oversight system is ineffective. Those conversations reflected the "systemic changes needed to build a safer and more just community for Portland's citizens," the city said.

But not all city officials are sold on the new commission. During a May city council meeting, some members expressed concern over the commission's "legitimacy," with Portland mayor Ted Wheeler (D.) arguing that the public will not take the body seriously if it does not include police officers. City council member Rene Gonzalez (D.) echoed those concerns, noting that voter sentiment on police accountability has changed since the summer of 2020, a year in which anti-police activists participated in fiery riots across the country following Floyd's death. Fellow council member Mingus Mapps (D.), meanwhile, lamented that voters have not approved the budget increase associated with the commission, which will grow its staff from 12 to 56.

"My concern is that if this is not seen as a balanced, fair approach to oversight and accountability, it will quickly be seen by the public and by our employees as an illegitimate process, and then we'll have a major mess on our hands that we will have to sort out," Wheeler said.

Portland's city council did not return a request for comment. The city's police bureau said it has not been involved in the shaping of the new commission, which will investigate police shootings and other high-profile incidents. The city plans to launch its new oversight system by 2025.