Willie Brown knows first hand how racial profiling can affect an individual.
"There was a time I myself was laid down on the pavement with a gun to my head," he said.
The incident, he added, ended peacefully after officers realized the robbery suspect they were looking for didn't exactly fit Brown's description.
Brown's experience is not entirely exceptional. A 2006 "Listening Sessions Report" — written by Oregon Action and several other community action groups — chronicled pervasive racial profiling by Portland police. The contents of the report were compiled after Oregon Action held several public sessions with both members of the community and police and examined traffic stop data from the police. The data indicated Blacks and Latinos are being stopped and searched at significantly higher rates than their percentage of the population.
After Oregon Action confronted the city with the report, the Portland Police Bureau admitted that racial profiling did in fact occur in its ranks. In response to the report, the City Council appointed Brown and 18 others to a committee enlisted to defeat racial profiling.
Brown, director of the Northeast Coalition of Neighbors, said the effects of racial profiling are painfully evident in the communities he represents. During a regular coalition meeting of about 185 community members, every Black male in the room raised their hands when asked how many had had interactions with the police, Brown said.
Acknowledging the problem was merely the first step, the City Council unanimously voted to establish the Racial Profiling Committee earlier this month to analyze and eradicate a practice that is illegal and not officially sanctioned by written policy.
Police policy states that officers are "prohibited from taking any police-initiated action that relies on the race, ethnicity or national origin rather than the behavior of an individual … engaged in criminal activity."
The Listening Report said officers' working definition of profiling is when "race is used as the sole factor in the decision to stop, question and/or search an individual."
Jo Ann Bowman, associate director for Oregon Action, the group that spearheaded the report during a period of calm between the police and residents, said the committee's goal will be to eliminate racial profiling. To accomplish that, Bowman — who co-chairs the committee along with Portland police Chief Rosie Sizer – said they will compile and review traffic stop data on a quarterly basis. The police have been collecting data on traffic stops since 1999, but this is the first time an independent group will collect those statistics for a yearly presentation to the City Council.
State Sen. Avel Gordly, I-SE/N.E. Portland, said she hopes the committee will succeed.
"Any effort focused on advancing the understanding of the issue that gets us to correcting the problem is a good thing," she said, noting that the controversy about whether profiling takes place or not is finally over. "There is an issue; there is a problem."
Bowman and Sizer have been meeting regularly, and Bowman anticipates "huge benefits" for both the public and the police if the changes recommended by the committee are properly implemented.
The police, Bowman said, aren't "going to feel under attack. Minority communities will have a higher level of appreciation and respect for police, to actually have a police force that is there to protect and serve them."
Bowman thinks the committee will hold a significant amount of political power with the police, the city and the community. The majority of the committee's members are from community groups affected by racial profiling; they will hold regular meetings to talk about the progress — or lack of progress — being made in the community.
Policy makers listened when authors of the report confronted the City Council, Bowman said.
"And if the community feels change isn't moving fast enough, we'll do something different," she added.
Brown said that despite his unpleasant encounter with police, he will come to the committee with an open mind; he hopes to bring balance to the group.
"I don't hold any hostilities toward police," he said.
Committee members include the president of the police association, the director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center, the VOZ Day Laborers Association, the director of Portland Cop Watch and 14 others. The only group affected by racial profiling but not represented was a youth organization, but Bowman said they are trying to find an appropriate member.
Committee members were nominated by Oregon Action, the Portland Police Bureau, the Center for Intercultural Organizing, Northwest Constitutional Rights Center and the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations — the same groups who sponsored the "Listening Sessions Report."
One of the Listening Report's recommendations — to have community groups create and implement community education programs — is also in the planning stages, said Bowman.
The first meeting of the committee will be on Jan. 30. Bowman expects to evaluate traffic and pedestrian stop data in February or March. The police bureau hopes to unveil a written plan to combat the practice in late January or February.
The report also calls for several other recommendations from the city:
• A written plan, developed by the police bureau by January 2007, with input from local residents;
• Public education programs that discuss what to do and what legal rights people have when stopped by a police officer;
• Additional community listening sessions for police and residents to discuss problems;
• Immediately begin to collect and analyze traffic stop data;
• Develop a method for community organizations to assist community members in filing complaints against officers who they believe have treated them inappropriately; this will ensure that a written record is kept and incidents are investigated.
"You can change interactions with the beginning of a conversation," Bowman said. "It's a good first step."