The excessive force policy the Baker City Council has been asked to approve to allow New Directions Northwest to receive a $1.5 million grant to build a Wellness Center is a routine part of awarding federal Community Development Block Grants.
Nathan Buehler, a spokesman for Business Oregon, the agency that administers the program in Oregon, said Thursday the Baker City Council can agree not to approve the policy, but in doing so, New Directions would not receive the $1.5 million funding for its project.
“It’s not an Oregon thing, it’s not a Business Oregon thing and it’s not a new thing,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to waive the federal requirement.”
The current environment in Oregon, which has included Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests over the past five months, might account for a few more questions being asked about the policy that has been in place since 1990, Buehler said.
He has not heard of any city in Oregon refusing to adopt such a policy and thereby refusing grant dollars.
Business Oregon has been involved in the program for 10 years, Buehler said.
Provisions of the National Affordable Housing Act state that “no CDBG funds may be obligated or expended to any unit of general local government that fails to adopt and enforce a policy of prohibiting the use of excessive force by law enforcement agencies within its jurisdiction against any individuals engaged in nonviolent civil rights demonstrations.”
A federal handbook further states that “applicable state and local laws that prohibit physically barring entrance to or exit from a facility or location which is the subject of such nonviolent civil rights demonstrations within its jurisdiction shall be enforced.”
If the grant recipient doesn’t already have a specific excessive force policy, one must be adopted by the City Council or Board of County Commissioners, according to the handbook.
Jeannie Dexter, Baker City finance director, said she has not been involved in Community Development Block Grants since she began working for the city in 2007.
The Baker County Board of Commissioners adopted the policy a few years ago when it received a $1.5 million block grant to build a new fire station in Richland.
In addressing concerns of Baker City councilors who opposed approving the policy Tuesday, Police Chief Ray Duman said he did not believe the policy would change how his officers perform their jobs.
Duman said the department’s 8-page use of force policy directs officers to use reasonable and necessary force to conduct an arrest.
“If you use excessive force, you’re putting yourself and the city in a tough liability situation,” he said.
Duman said all complaints of excessive use of force are investigated and appropriate action is taken.
Duman, who retired from the Oregon State Police in 2011 after a 27 1/2-year career with the agency, has served as Baker City Police chief since July 1, 2019. In that time there have been three personnel complaints, including one alleging excessive use of force. The other two complaints involved allegations of an inappropriate comment made by an officer and damage to a vehicle by an officer.
After an investigation of the excessive use of force allegation, which Duman said was a confidential personnel matter that he would not discuss, the officer was disciplined and the matter was settled.
To help in the investigation, Baker City Police are equipped with body cameras, which record their interactions with the public, Duman said.
A review of body camera footage provides a more clear understanding of both sides of each story, he said.
“Citizens who make complaints are due proper respect,” Duman said. “If an officer was out of line, he or she will be held accountable.”
Officers also undergo a minimum 8 hours of training on the use of force each year.
“This is always an ongoing process that’s always being ingrained in the officers,” Duman said. “You react how you’re trained when you are out on the street.”
Duman says he can understand why there might be some concern about the city having to approve an additional policy that specifically deals with nonviolent civil rights demonstrations.
City Manager Fred Warner Jr. said he will present more details about the policy to the Council in the near future for further discussion, and invite community comment as well.
Duman believes that could resolve the matter.
“I think it’s something we can work through very easily,” he said. “I would hate to see New Directions Northwest not get the grant. I think it would be good for the community to have a Wellness Center.”