Why Can’t One of the US’s Most “Progressive” Cities Reform Its Police Force?

17 November, 2011: Portland Police in Riot Gear Holding the Line in Downtown Portland, Oregon during a Occupy Portland protest on the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. (Photo via Shutterstock)17 November, 2011: Portland Police in Riot Gear Holding the Line in Downtown Portland, Oregon during a Occupy Portland protest on the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. (Photo:JPL Designs / Shutterstock.com)

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It was just after midnight on a September Sunday when several police officers, responding to reports of property damage, approached a small group of young black men walking down a street in north Portland, Oregon. Among them was 16-year-old Thai Gurule, a football player at Roosevelt High School, and his older brother Giovanni. Officers ordered Thai to stop. He kept walking.

Within minutes Thai would be tackled by several officers, forced to the ground, tased and handcuffed. Later, despite a judge’s ruling that the initial stop was illegal, he’d face charges of resisting arrest, assaulting a public safety officer and attempted strangulation. Giovanni would face similar, though less serious, charges. The Portland Police Bureau worked quickly to defend their officers, releasing a statement that explained that the Gurule brothers were “very hostile,” and that Thai demonstrated “active aggression, including his choking the female officer.”

Cell phone videos captured a different scene: Thai, slight of body, standing still between two officers. “Can I ask you a question?” Giovanni can be heard saying. “What did my little brother do? He don’t do nothing. He plays football for Roosevelt, come on now. He don’t drink. He don’t smoke.” Suddenly, the officers pull Thai towards the ground. His white hat falls off, and he reaches for it through the scrum. Officers bark orders, and bystanders shout: “Stop pulling his hair!” “Why are you punching him?” “That’s illegal!” “What’s the problem that he caused?” “Fucking pigs!” When they tase him, Thai begins to gasp, his high-pitched keening overlaid by the hoarser, panicked protests coming from his older brother.

Less than a month earlier, the Portland Police Bureau had reached a “groundbreaking” agreement with the Department of Justice to settle a case stemming from repeated incidences of police violence. There was the schizophrenic who was beaten to death by officers; the suicidal young black man who was shot in the back after concerned relatives called the police; another young man in a mental health crisis who was shot to death after cops pulled him over for driving “like a gangster.” The deal, as described by the DOJ, will put in place “innovative new mechanisms” for community oversight and requires reforms to training and use-of-force guidelines.

The bureau’s treatment of mentally ill people was the focus of the federal inquiry. The DOJ did also acknowledge “the often tense relationship between PPB and the African American community,” and that some Portlanders believe city cops are out to “protect the white folk and police the black folk.” But the feds didn’t dig for the roots of that tension. Portland is roughly 6 percent African-American, while just over 3 percent of the police force is. About 14 percent of the people pulled over in traffic stops are African-American, as are a quarter of people shot or shot at by police. Beneath the gloss of white Portland’s self-conscious progressivism are grievances related to this skewed use of force; to the rapid gentrification of historically black neighborhoods; the decline of black-owned businesses and public schools in those areas; and a deep history of state-sanctioned racism. “I live north of Portlandia,” a senior at De La Salle North Catholic High School put it at a forum on racial profiling in early March. “The one you know nothing about.”

Portland’s reform efforts come in the context of a national outcry against police violence and its disproportionate impact on people of color, as well as new eagerness within the DOJ to force changes to local law enforcement. The debate about how best to reform the police—and whether police reform is even the right thing to focus on—is spreading and intensifying. Portland’s homogeneity, and its reputation for liberalism and livability make the city’s policing problems appear less acute than in, say, Ferguson, Missouri. But it’s worth asking why a city that by some measures is best equipped politically to build a better policing model hasn’t been able to do so.

The Gurule case “demonstrated that even with the settlement agreement on paper, we still have a long road ahead on implementation,” said Reverend LeRoy Haynes Jr., chair of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, which was instrumental in the development of the settlement. Haynes views that agreement as “a foundation for beginning to really—slowly—transform the Portland Police Bureau.” But, he told me, it’s no panacea. “I think the DOJ chose the easier route at the time,” he said of the department’s kid-glove approach to racial dynamics in the city. “But you can’t transform the bureau without transforming its impact on communities of color.”

Teressa Raiford was 10 when police officers left four dead possums on the doorstep of her grandmother’s restaurant in north Portland. Her grandmother was so embarrassed by the incident that she refused to come out of her house, Raiford recalled recently over coffee in northeast Portland’s Hollywood neighborhood. Raiford’s father called the city commissioner to complain, and the incident provoked the formation of the city’s first citizen review board. That was three decades ago. Raiford is now a gun-safety advocate and the lead organizer for Don’t Shoot Portland, a local group pushing for police accountability. Cops aren’t leaving carcasses in front of black-owned businesses, but, she noted, “we’re still having the same conversation.”

The history of the Portland police—and the state of Oregon—is intimately bound with white supremacist groups. In August 1921 the Portland Telegram ran a picture of city officials, including the chief of police, meeting with hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan. One hundred Klansmen were officially deputized as “Portland Police Vigilantes.” The police bureau itself, the Telegram reported, was “full to the brink with Klansmen.” Although the KKK eventually lost its prominence, people of color were targeted by Portland police officers well into the 1980s. After a black off-duty security guard was choked to death by police in 1985, the police chief banned the use of “sleeper holds.” In response, police officers printed 100 T-shirts with the image of a smoking gun and the slogan, “Don’t Choke ’Em. Smoke ’Em.”

The periodic changes that the Portland Police Bureau has made to its use of force policies and leadership in response to these types of incidents hasn’t stopped them from happening. Raiford and I started talking initially about racial bias in the police force, but our conversation soon broadened to inequality in Portland generally. She talked about poverty in Portland’s communities of color, about walking into coffee shops in gentrified neighborhoods and noticing how conversation among white patrons quieted. “That’s not for us,” Raiford said of those hip cafes and other markers of Portland’s youthful prosperity. Local civil rights leader Ron Herndon said something similar in 1980 about Portland’s reputation for livability. “That livability is not there for blacks, instead we get prison, unemployment, bad housing, and Klan-type harassment.”

I walked with Raiford a few blocks to a Presbyterian church, where a Community Oversight Advisory Board formed in accordance with the Justice Department settlement was due to meet. The board’s fifteen voting members include a former state senator, a rabbi, human and disability rights advocates and medical professionals. Former Oregon Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz chairs. The meeting I attended was largely devoted to bylaws, committee appointments and other tedium. But the Department of Justice views the COAB as “innovative,” and will rely on reports from the group to monitor the police bureau’s compliance with the settlement.

Raiford is skeptical about the COAB’s anticipated impact, in part because of its limited purview. “The only thing they can do is investigate,” she said, not hold officers accountable. It also can’t do much about the political and economic disenfranchisement within Portland’s communities of color, which she perceives as intimately connected to crime, and in turn, to over-policing. “You need to provide an economic uplift,” she said. “Education and jobs is what the kids need to stop the violence.”

When I asked Reverend Haynes whether it was the police or underlying social issues that really needed reforming, he said, “We don’t have the privilege to do one and then the other.… You can’t get around the issues of economic development, of jobs, of a decent living wage, all of those major issues.” But economic development will only happen if the community feels safe, he continued. “When the crisis is such that your house is on fire, you have to put the fire out first.”

Portland’s political leadership says it is committed to the reform process forced by the DOJ. Yet the city and the police union reject accusations of systemic bias. Sitting off to the side of the COAB board meeting was the president of the Portland Police Association, Daryl Turner, wearing a black polo shirt that showed the tattoos ringing his massive arms. In September, after the announcement of the settlement agreement, Turner called on the bureau’s critics “to stop the negative, anti-police sentiment by highlighting the quality work done by every one of our members on a daily basis.” As people mingled in the church basement awaiting the start of the meeting, he chatted with Raiford, who told him that an activist at a Don’t Shoot rally the night before had been arrested. “Good experience for them,” Turner joked. Later, Raiford whispered to me that he was one of the few officials she trusted, because he was a straight-talker.

The city has already started to chip away at the terms of the agreement. The federal judge who approved the settlement, Michael Simon, did so on the condition that officials and community members would appear before his court once a year to report on the bureau’s progress. In October, Mayor Charlie Hales, who serves as police commissioner, and three other members of the city council voted to appeal that order, challenging the judge’s oversight authority. Reverend Haynes and others went to City Hall in January to protest the appeal. “They don’t want any unbiased, independent authority like a federal judge to review what they are doing,” Haynes saidat the demonstration. “They want to keep it under their control in order to cover-up or not implement parts of the agreement.”

As Portland State University professors Karen Gibson and Leanne Serbulo write in “Black and Blue: Police-Community Relations in Portland’s Albina District, 1964–1985,” city leaders have long been complicit in racial injustices perpetrated by the Portland police and at best, unwilling to confront the police union. “Given the lack of support from elected officials and the outright hostility from rank-and-file police officers, it is no wonder that Portland’s black community sought assistance from courts, the federal government, and even the United Nations,” they write. “Still, those external appeals fell far short of ensuring equal justice for black citizens in Portland.” Though community leaders like Haynes are still cautiously optimistic about the settlement agreement, the signals that the city is sending about its commitment to change are troubling.

During the COAB meeting Raines leaned over and handed me a note. A few hours earlier, Thai Gurule had been acquitted of all charges. In her ruling, Judge Diana Stuart reprimanded the police for endangering the teen in “a melee of fists and punches and bodies falling upon him,” and for providing inaccurate testimony. The officers’ conduct, said the judge, was “senseless and aggressive.” The police chief had no comment on the ruling. So far, none of the officers involved has been disciplined.