Session addresses pandemic, police accountability issues


SALEM — In a three-day special session last week, the Oregon Legislature passed a slate of bills aimed at increasing accountability for law enforcement, as well as countering negative economic and societal impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, among other measures.

The 42nd Special Session of the Oregon Legislature adjourned June 26 after the passage of more than a dozen bills, some of which codified measures first implemented by Gov. Kate Brown through executive order. An omnibus bill to address the COVID-19 pandemic, HB 4212, contains multiple provisions.

Among them is a requirement for health care providers to collect demographic data — race, ethnicity, preferred language and disability status — when providing health services related to COVID-19. Brown said in a press conference on Wednesday that her chief regret in responding to the pandemic was the initial failure to anticipate and act upon the disproportionate effect the disease has had on communities of color.

The bill also contains provisions for conducting public meetings and court proceedings in a time of necessary social distancing, allowing local governments to hold virtual meetings, with language specifying notice, quorum and recording requirements to ensure transparency; and giving the chief justice of the state’s supreme court the authority to extend statutory deadlines for court appearances if the pandemic results in a delay — it allows for a 60-day extension beyond the current 180-day limit to conduct a trial for an incarcerated individual accused of a person crime if there is “clear and convincing evidence of the substantial and specific danger of physical injury or sexual victimization to the victim or members of the public should release occur … and no release conditions could sufficiently mitigate that danger.”

HB 4212 also provides protections to ensure CARES Act payments can’t be withheld or garnished before Sept. 30. The bill temporarily waives zoning requirements for emergency sheltering sites, authorizes a pilot program for notaries to operate remotely, allows flexibility for individual development accounts to be used for emergency expenses, and provides temporary authorization for expanded physician assistant practice to aid in emergency response.

Two other bills address financial hardship imposed by the pandemic. HB 4213 extends a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions, declared by Brown on March 22 and originally set to expire at the end of June, through the month of September. The bill also creates a six-month grace period after the end of the moratorium, in which renters would be required to make monthly payments but can’t be evicted for failure to pay back rent. It prohibits late fees and negative credit reporting for nonpayment during the moratorium. HB 4204 provides a similar protection for borrowers, directing lenders to defer mortgage payments through Sept. 30. Deferred payments would be due at the end of the loan unless the borrower and lender mutually agree to alternate terms.

State Rep. David Gomberg said the eviction moratorium had originally given him pause. “I had great concerns that prohibiting evictions for non-payment would harm our small landlords,” Gomberg wrote in an email update to constituents. “I had planned to vote against the bill until a number of protections were added and a similar measure passed protecting property owners from foreclosure. Without these bills, the governor would likely have extended broader eviction rules now in place. The measure was supported by landlord and tenant organizations and banks and credit unions.”

Six bills address police accountability and the use of force by law enforcement. HB 4201 establishes a Joint Committee on Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform. The committee is tasked with examining transparency in complaint investigations and police protocols; examining policies to reduce serious harm from the use of force, policies for authorizing the use of force and their impact on communities of color; and determining the most appropriate policy for independent review of the use of deadly force. The joint committee is to make recommendations to house and senate judiciary committees by the end of the year.

HB 4203 outlaws the use of chokeholds by law enforcement officers, except in circumstances where the use of deadly force is otherwise authorized, and HB 4208 prohibits law enforcement from using tear gas for crowd control unless an event has been declared a riot, as defined by statute. HB 4205 requires officers to intervene in acts of misconduct, including “unjustified or excessive force that is objectively unreasonable under the circumstances or in violation of the law enforcement agency’s use of force policy; sexual harassment or sexual misconduct; discrimination against a person based on protected class; committing a crime; or violation of the minimum standards for fitness for public safety personnel.” The bill also requires that misconduct be reported within 72 hours.

Another bill alters the arbitration process by which police officers appeal discipline for misconduct. Under the current process, an arbitrator can undo or substitute disciplinary measures even if they find that misconduct indeed took place. SB 1604 requires the discipline be imposed if the arbitrator agrees the misconduct occurred. HB 4207 requires the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to create an online, public database of officers who have had their certification revoked or suspended for wrongdoing (the bill makes note that a conviction for marijuana possession is not grounds for revocation or suspension), and it requires law enforcement agencies to request and review applicants’ personnel files from previous agencies before hiring.

Other significant measures passed during the special session include HB 4210, which removes the authority of courts to suspend or revoke driving privileges for failure to pay traffic fines or comply with requirements in lieu of fees. SB 1601 prevents citations from being issued for expired licenses, permits and registrations until Dec. 31, and it directs courts to dismiss any such citations issued since March1.

The Rural Telecommunications Act, SB 1603, creates a broadband fund for the development of high-speed internet infrastructure. As Gomberg noted in his email update, about 43 percent of rural residents have no or limited access to the internet, and the current funding structure is based on surcharges paid by landline phone subscribers, a rapidly shrinking demographic.

“Due to our challenging geography, much of the coast is a broadband desert. Yet reliable access to the internet will be essential to our coastal recovery,” Gomberg wrote. The new bill adds a surcharge for mobile phones to be paid into the fund, while lowering the rate for all users by 2.5 percent. It’s expected to bring in $2.5 million during the current biennium and $3.1 million in the 2021-23 budget. The cost for cell phone users is estimated to be about $4 per year.

The governor said during a press conference Saturday, June 27, that she anticipated convening another special session later in the summer to address the state budget given billions of dollars in projected lost revenue. Brown said she would wait until at least August to see what relief would be provided by the U.S. Congress before calling legislators back to address the state’s financial crisis.

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