2017 Session: Most Difficult for Policing in Decades

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A Legislative Session with the current legislative environment can be extremely difficult. OSSA lobbyist, Kevin Campbell, has stated, “I can confidently say that the 2017 legislative session is the most challenging in my 22-year career.”

There are a number of reasons that the 2017 Legislative Session is particularly challenging for policing interests including the following:

Political Imbalance:  History tells us that legislatures that are more evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans tend to pass less controversial legislation and less legislation overall. Members of both parties have to put aside the more extreme parts of their agendas to accomplish the basic work involved in balancing budgets and completing their work in a timely manner. Legislatures that are controlled too much by either party lack necessary balance or the need to consider alternative perspectives and the result can be damaging legislation. In 2017, Democrats hold the Governor’s office, control the House of Representatives with a 35 to 25 seat margin and control the Senate with a 17 to 13 margin.

Reaction to Shift in Federal Government Leadership – Uncertainty and Angst: The election of Donald Trump is having a profound and ongoing impact on the 2017 Legislative Session as progressives try to counterbalance what they see as an attack on their accomplishments over the past eight years. For many progressive legislators, Oregon, along with California and Washington, represent an embattled outpost where progressive policies must be protected and expanded. This potentially places Oregon on the short list of states that may see reductions of Federal funding for law enforcement, Medicaid and other programs based on a determination that we are out of step/compliance with the shift in Federal Government approach. As the President and Congress take action, I expect progressive leaders in Oregon to take equal and opposite action.

Under the Extreme Influence of Political Influence and Special Interests: Both parties are influenced heavily by special interest groups that expect access and favorable treatment based on the money and effort they invest to get candidates elected. Let me acknowledge that of the 90 members of the Oregon Legislature, a VAST majority (if not all) serve with the best interests of Oregon and their constituents as their motive. After all, their $24,000 per year salary is embarrassingly inadequate for the sacrifice required for their public service role, so there isn’t any financial motive. So why does a legislator that is thoughtful and well-meaning end up voting for policies that seem antithetical to the best interests of the district they represent? Look no further than special interest politics where a failure to stay in good graces may mean a challenge by a well-funded opponent in the next election. For the party in control, groups like Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Oregon Education Association (OEA) and environmental interests have significant influence.

Ongoing Fiscal Challenges: Despite a relatively healthy Oregon economy, the cost of government continues to grow at a faster rate than the growth of revenue. As a result, the legislature is faced with addressing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall. Unlike the budget crisis of 2009 where the economy was in severe recession and where a recovery was counted on as part of the solution, the 2017 Legislature has only two options: cuts to programs/services, or new revenue. Neither will be easy to accomplish and bills we view as damaging could be adopted over our objection if they become part of a “grand bargain” that allows them to solve their budget challenge. In this environment, the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police (OACP) and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association (OSSA) are working hard to protect and enhance public safety budgets.

Of the nearly 3,000 bills introduced for the 2017 Legislative Session, the OSSA Legislative Committee is tracking nearly 500 of them. Our Bill Tracking Report by Subject is 89 pages long, and there are a significant number of problematic bills in the mix. As some problematic legislation dies due to committee deadlines, the number of bills remaining will decrease. However, it is important to remind everyone that “bills die, but ideas aren’t dead until the session ends.” An idea can be revived easily through an amendment into another bill with an acceptable relating clause. As a result, I will be sleeping with “one eye open” until Sine Die (end of the session).

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Without question, Oregon law enforcement is one of the most effective and collaborative policing cultures in the nation. While not perfect and with an insufficient number of personnel to accomplish our mission, law enforcement leaders and our public safety agency leaders are working closely together to ensure the best public safety results for Oregonians. To provide an opportunity for legislators to experience the positives of Oregon policing, OSSA creates opportunities for legislators to visit the public safety academy where the excellence and collaboration are illustrated. Many legislators have very little background on the work of law enforcement (or a negative one in some cases), so opportunities like the following are critically important: already this year, legislators participated in a “Use of Force” experience on January 25th in the scenario village where they were briefed on use of force policy considerations; experienced the MILO Range (active shooter training range) at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST); and participated in a series of scenarios in the scenario village as police officers.

On February 22nd, Legislators were invited to an evening event at the Academy sponsored by the Task Force on School Safety to hear from Bill Modzeleski, a national expert on threat assessment and the importance of threat assessment teams. On February 23rd, the Senate Judiciary Committee spent the morning at the academy for a law enforcement-sensitive briefing on surveillance and privacy with a live scenario that illustrated the tools and process we use to conduct investigations. The purpose of these proactive efforts is to build a stronger connection between legislators and our policing leaders and to educate them regarding our positive and strategic policing culture. More of these experiences are in the planning stages.

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Our approach and strategy for the 2017 Legislative Session is informed by the factors listed above that describe and explain the challenging legislative environment we face. The strategy is simple but the work to make it happen is overwhelming. In essence, the approach includes the following components:

  • When you can’t stop bad legislation from passing, engage in good faith negotiations designed to reduce harm. If successful, these negotiations could reduce the impacts of a bad bill from damaging to annoying. Engaging in good faith on issues insures that you have credibility when you need to fight an issue.
  • Choose your battles carefully and use political capital judiciously, so you end up with good will when you need it. There is a time when core principles require you to fight where there is no middle ground. However, when groups fight all the time (especially in this political environment), everyone loses.
  • Carefully evaluate the difference between bills that truly cause damage and those that are simply offensive, inconvenient or ridiculous. It is easy to describe bills as “the end of the world” during a legislative session without honestly looking at the impact.
  • Don’t stop to “kick every barking dog.” With nearly 500 bills on our tracking list, it would be easy to invest time and energy on issues that are a low priority.

The State of Oregon must be a reliable public safety partner with municipal and county law enforcement by funding key state-level public safety programs adequately and consistently. The public safety system in Oregon consists of a series of interdependent pieces that must be adequately resourced for the system to work and for justice to prevail. In this way, the criminal justice system is like a string of Christmas lights that fails to remain lit if one of its bulbs is broken. Municipal and county law enforcement relies on the State of Oregon to provide or fund reliable public safety resources in areas that are critical to the operation of the public safety system. These areas include police officer training, forensic services, county corrections funding, medical examiner services, and Oregon State Police (OSP) troopers and multidisciplinary teams that ensure that small and rural communities have access to major crimes, drug interdiction and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) resources. In many cases, the State is a primary funder or “sole source” provider of the services. From the training of police officers, to the enforcement of criminal law, to the analysis of evidence, to the prosecution of cases (indigent defense, prosecution services, court system resources), to the corrections system (municipal, county and state), the public safety system requires balance and a reliable state partner. When the state inconsistently funds these “system-critical elements” of public safety, damage to the system occurs and local law enforcement is left without alternatives.

Basic police officer training, regional training and leadership training are critical to the integrity of policing in Oregon. Here’s why:

All Oregon police departments, city, county, and state, send their new recruits to the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) for their 16 weeks of basic training. As the sole source provider of this essential training, DPSST is crucial to the public safety mission of police agencies throughout the state. While it isn’t particularly “sexy,” adequately funded basic, regional and leadership training is the best way to address some of law enforcement’s most difficult and controversial public issues (use of force, race-based policing, mentally ill on the street). The work of the Center for Policing Excellence is providing a place for law enforcement leaders to examine policing research and to seek improvements to best practice standards.

Sheriffs urge the legislature to fulfill their 2013 commitment to fund justice reinvestment as established in HB 3194. Sheriffs continue to support mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes approved by voters in 1994 through Ballot Measure 11. In 2013, the OSSA joined the Police Chiefs and District Attorneys to negotiate legislation (HB 3194) designed to avoid the cost of building a new prison by adjusting some sentencing law and by investing savings on programs designed to reduce recidivism and increase the success of re-entry programs. As a part of the negotiation, legislative leaders committed to fund these programs and to honor a moratorium on legislation impacting sentencing for years. OSSA remains committed to protecting our mandatory minimum sentences approved by voters through Ballot Measure 11. OSSA is committed to ongoing conversations to ensure that our sentencing system is effective and just.

Stay tuned as we are only halfway through the legislative session and the budget is now the big elephant in the room, and could and probably will effect everything we have just talked about. Once again special thanks to Kevin and Sheriff Jason Myers along with other sheriffs and OSSA in representing you.

Written by Kevin Campbell, Victory Group and John Bishop, Executive Director, Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association and Retired Curry County Sheriff