This article originally appeared in the July 22, 2009 edition of the Portland Observer.
Group tackles police practices
The Portland Observer
A new front has been opened to heal old wounds between the Portland Police Bureau and minority populations.
A committee on Community and Police Relations for the city’s Human Relations Commission fully assembled for the first time this month to address racial profiling and other complaints.
Members of the committee expressed a desire to improve relations between the police and the communities it serves. However, the group is still finding its voice as it grapples with lingering issues from the city’s previous efforts to address police tensions.
“This is a very unique opportunity, and that’s very exciting; so it better work,” said Hector Lopez, the committee’s chair and retired United Church of Christ minister.
The committee is composed of four Human Relations Commission members, five police officers, and four citizens. It is charged with developing guidelines and pathways for improving relations with police, making recommendations on community policing policies, and addressing prickly issues like racial profiling.
The group’s citizen component includes two African Americans who have been on the wrong side of the law in the past and now mentor youth, an immigration lawyer, and a Hispanic who works with at-risk Latino youth.
As committee members introduced themselves to each other they expressed a deep commitment to Portland and improving police-community relations.
East Precinct Police Commander Mike Crebs nearly teared up when describing his fondness for the community he serves and how the sound of gun fire in residential neighborhoods distresses him.
“I want our critics to come out and shake our hands, and say, ‘you know what? You have achieved excellence,'” he said.
However, the committee acknowledged that its plans to improve relations between police and the community are still in its infancy.
“We all got to crawl before we walk,” said Darryl Kelly Jr., a former gang member who was recently appointed to the committee.
The formation of the committee is one of the city’s most recent efforts to improve the relationship between the community and the police. For years, the city has formed a number of similar committees composed of police and citizens. The issue of racial profiling has often taken center stage.
Earlier this year, the Portland Police Bureau released a plan to address racial profiling. It acknowledged that the problem of using race as a basis for criminal suspicion is real, and recommended diversifying the ranks of the police and having officers meet with communities traditionally distrustful of law enforcement.
The plan was the result of work by the Racial Profiling Committee, a disbanded group that was formed by then-Mayor Tom Potter, which found itself split over the issue of whether to identify and sanction officers who racially profile.
Some members of the former committee, like Oregon Action Executive Director Jo Ann Bowman, have long faulted police for lacking a mechanism to find out which officers racially profile and hold them accountable.
Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, a member of old Racial Profiling Committee, raised the accountability issue with members of new panel at their inaugural meeting.
“We see a lot of things that look like misconduct, and we don’t see a lot of holding officers accountable for it,” he said. “I think that’s where you get the mistrust from the community.”
Handelman also pointed out that a new report on police use of force issued by the city auditor revealed that 29 percent of all people whom the police used force on were African American, and that 34 percent of reports police pointed a firearm at a subject involved African Americans.
“I was really glad Dan raised those issues,” said Arwen Bird, a citizen member of the new committee, after the group’s first meeting. “Accountability is critical.”
However, Assistant Police Chief Brian Martinek doesn’t want to focus too much on “the sins of the past.”
“If that’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to get stuck,” Martinek said after the meeting.