Earlier this year, for the first time in its history, the Portland Police Bureau admitted that yes — racial profiling happens in Portland. That revelation, coupled with a recently completed series of community listening sessions on the issue, have led to an unprecedented opportunity to make the bureau accountable for — and eventually eliminate — racial profiling, said the director of a local grassroots activist organization.
"I think that we have a very unique opportunity here in the city," said JoAnn Bowman, executive director of Oregon Action, one of the organizers of the listening sessions. "We have a City Council that's paying attention and has actually made public statements of commitment to eliminating racial profiling from the police bureau.
"We have a police chief who has been very open to community input and insight … . We're at a very fortunate time where we have community organizations, city government and the police bureau all singing from the same songbook."
The sessions produced, among other things, a set of recommendations for the police bureau to reduce the frequency of racial profiling and, hopefully, eliminate it entirely.
The listening sessions were more productive than past efforts, Bowman said, because they weren't held in a period of high tension between the police and the community. The last session, held in late summer, took place before the recent death of a mentally ill man, James Chasse, who was in Portland police custody, and the fatal shooting of a teen by Tigard police.
"The big difference is that the sessions weren't in response to a community crisis," Bowman said. "When we scheduled the meetings, no one had recently been shot, there had been no recent public outrage around police activity."
Another factor in the sessions' success, she said, was their atmosphere — it was clear to all involved that the sessions were community events where both the public and the police participated, rather than the police lecturing the public.
"The goal was to make sure that we created this opportunity for the community and the police to have dialogue in a facilitated, structured environment," Bowman said. "Because what we hear from community members is, 'The police don't want to hear anything except that they're doing a great job and everything's fine.' "
A coalition consisting of Oregon Action, the Center for Intercultural Organizing, the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center, the Portland Police Bureau and the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations have published a report on the sessions, entitled Listening Sessions Report: A Community and Police Partnership to Eliminate Racial Profiling.
The report summarizes the primary topics addressed at the sessions, including the definition of racial profiling as perceived by both the police and community members. The report observes that the term means something completely different to members of both groups.
"Community members defined racial profiling in terms of experience, in damage to sense of self and place, in feelings of humiliation and alienation from their own community," the report states.
This is in contrast to the police bureau's working definition of racial profiling — "When race is used as the sole factor in making a decision to stop, question or search an individual" — a definition tied to overt prejudice and illegal behavior. The fact that such behavior is illegal, the report notes, "obligates officers to deny that profiling exists or that they have ever seen it happen."
This narrow perception, according to the report, "does not account for the ways in which racial bias influences judgment, even when race is not the 'sole' factor in making a decision. … Officers must be able to see and acknowledge the broader picture of racial profiling."
By far, the context in which incidences of racial profiling were most often related at the listening sessions was the "pretext stop" — a vehicle stop triggered by an officer's judgment that a suspect looks suspicious. When this pretext is someone's race, then that person is being racially profiled.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows pretext stops so long as an officer has probable cause, but pretext stops can be challenged if they are racially motivated.
"What is or is not suspicious is subject to what many people call cultural racism," the report notes, "which defines middle-class White behavior and appearance as normative and everything else as suspicious. The result is an over-policing of communities of color … and the creation of the mistrust described so vividly in the listening sessions."
The report describes the "culturally acquired belief in Black criminality" on the part of many people, both in law enforcement and in the community at large. As an example, the report notes that rates of drug use among Blacks and Whites are virtually identical, yet Blacks are incarcerated for drug-related crimes at five to six times the rate of Whites.
The higher rate of incarceration of Blacks "becomes a false rationalization to argue that they are more likely to commit crimes. We persist in mistaking the effect of discrimination for its cause … ." the report states. The result is a sort of chicken-or-the-egg problem.
"One of the 'pushbacks' you encounter when you address the issue of racial profiling," Bowman said, "is that some police officers will say, 'People of color are the victims of crime more than Whites are, so we're going to target those communities because we have to keep people safe.' It's a false argument that reinforces the perception that where there are people of color, there's a higher rate of crime."
The report observes that civilian participants at the sessions were "careful not to assert that overt racism is rampant in the Portland Police Bureau." However, it goes on to note that "not one of us can remain untouched by the cultural and institutional biases" that inform us.
Based on the results of the listening sessions, the report's authors came up with six recommendations for the police bureau, three of which Bowman described as "community" recommendations, and three as "government/policymaker" recommendations:
• No later than January 2007, the Portland Police Bureau should develop a written plan, with community stakeholder input, to eliminate racial profiling.
• Community organizations should create and implement public education programs on the attitudes and behaviors that are appropriate during traffic and pedestrian stops, as well as on the legal rights of individuals, so as to minimize conflict or escalation at the scene.
"If you're being pulled over by a cop," Bowman said, "that's probably not the time to challenge whether or not you're being racially profiled."
• No later than December 2006, the Portland City Council should convene a commission whose role is to monitor data collection, review internal policies and take community input to eliminate racial profiling.
• Community organization should develop additional community listening sessions or other activities and events that create a safe environment for police and community members to participate in structured dialogue.
"Police and community members need to get to know each other as individuals, not based on a uniform or on a demographic," Bowman said.
• Starting immediately, the Portland Police should begin to collect and analyze data on individual officers' traffic and pedestrian stops to determine the extent to which racial profiling occurs institutionally.
"This is the recommendation that provided the police chief (Rosie Sizer) with the most concern," said Bowman. "One of the things we hear is that racial profiling is not a systemic problem in the bureau, that there are just a few bad apples. But unless you're actually keeping track of who is making the stops, you'll never know."
• Community organizations should assist community members with filing complaints against officers who they believe have treated them inappropriately, so that a written record is developed and incidents are promptly investigated and resolved.
Bowman thinks the timing of the recommendations and the current atmosphere of good faith between the community, the police and the city government are such that the vision put forth in the listening sessions and the report can become a reality.
"The mayor made the commitment that the City Council would be back in 60 days with the mechanism to move forward," she said. "Our plan is to work with the mayor's office, the police chief and the council to stick with this timeline."
For a copy of Listening Sessions Report: A Community and Police Partnership to Eliminate Racial Profiling, call Oregon Action, 503-282-6588, or visit www.oregonaction.org.