A new report on racial profiling by Portland Police Bureau officers confirms what Portlanders of color have known for a long time: Police routinely stop — and search — people of color more often than they do White people.
And the report confirms another fact, perhaps less well-known: Searches of White people turn up more drugs and other illicit items than do searches of African Americans and Latinos.
But despite the fact that the report revealed little that was new, it does establish one thing beyond a doubt — racial profiling does take place in Portland.
"The report just reconfirmed what we already knew to be true just from talking to community members," said JoAnn Bowman, director of the activist group Oregon Action. "It just put the racial profiling question in black-and-white terms — it's a reality. It can no longer be characterized as just a perception by people of color.
"It is a fact of life at the Portland Police Bureau."
In 2005, the report shows, African American drivers were stopped by police 2.4 times as often as Whites. For Latinos, the figure was 1.7 times as often as Whites.
Of 79,419 traffic stops in Portland during 2005, 10,702 — or 13 percent — were African American drivers. Police stopped 54,218 Whites, or 68 percent of all stops. African Americans and Whites make up 6 percent and 79 percent of Portland's population, respectively.
Now that statistics have proven that racial profiling is taking place in Portland, Bowman's group, Oregon Action, is wasting no time in coming up with a solution. The organization is holding a series of community listening sessions — one for each of the Police Bureau's five precincts — to gather public input on what is to be done. The first session took place Tuesday in Southeast Portland's Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood. The next is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 25, in the East Portland Community Center, 740 S.E. 106th Ave.
The listening sessions are intended to accomplish two goals, Bowman said: first, to create opportunities for amicable dialogue between the community and the police bureau; and second, to develop policy recommendations that will eliminate the practice of racial profiling from the bureau.
"At the conclusion of the five listening sessions, we're going to produce a report that will contain proceedings and recommendations from the sessions," Bowman said. "What we're looking for is information from the community — and the police — to say, 'This is what we need to do. These are steps we need to take to eliminate racial profiling.' "
Judging from the first session, Bowman said, the effort will bear fruit. Interim Chief Rosie Sizer attended, continuing a commitment established by Chief Derrick Foxworth, who is currently on leave. Bowman described the change in attitude on the part of both police and community members over the course of the meeting.
"At first, people were feeling confrontational," she recalled. "You could see it from the body language — people were sitting with arms folded, really tense. It took about a half hour for people to appreciate the format we had set up. It doesn't allow for people to come out and cuss out the police, and it doesn't allow for police to respond negatively to community members.
"By the end, community members and police were laughing and joking, exchanging business cards and making plans to get together and continue their conversation. In my mind, that's a good outcome."
Bowman stressed the importance of dealing directly with the police bureau and not with the Citizens Review Committee, the established medium for people who have grievances with police officer behavior. The listening sessions allow people to talk directly with the police, without the buffer of a third party — the Citizens Review Committee.
"I don't think they're (the committee) an effective remedy for community members who feel they've been mistreated by the Portland Police Bureau," she said. "We want to go right where the buck stops — and the buck stops with the chief."
Alejandro Queral, of the NorthwestConstitutional Rights Center, which is organizing the listening sessions along with Oregon Action, agreed that the direct police-citizen contact of the listening sessions makes for clear communication. But he added that the community needs to interact directly with the bureau's Internal Police Review Division, the official counterpart to the Citizens Review Committee, to ensure that lasting changes are made to address racial profiling and to hold officers accountable for their actions. The committee itself, he said, while currently a toothless entity, could be empowered to be an effective means of direct citizen oversight over the police bureau.
"Right now, the Internal Police Review has the capacity to investigate a complaint of officer misconduct with its own private investigators — who are all former police officers — or to send the case for investigation to the Internal Affairs Division," Queral said.
"That creates a conflict of interest right off the bat, because we have officers investigating officers. So we have investigations whose processes and results are questionable."
What needs to be done, he said, is to establish the use of independent investigators to avoid this conflict of interest, create binding policy resolutions to hold officers accountable and enable the Citizens Review Committee to compel testimony from officers.
In terms of personnel, Queral said that hiring more officers of color would be a step in the direction of a more tolerant, perceptive police bureau.
"Creating a culture of understanding, tolerance and diversity requires changes of personnel within the department, and changes in terms of how the department relates with the community and how the department is accountable to the community," he said.
But despite the considerable work yet to be done, Queral said that acknowledging the existence of persistent racial profiling at the bureau was a necessary step and one that has made everyone feel that progress is possible.
"There is a sense that the system is not working, that the system is always going to come down on the side of the police," Queral said. "So the report that was released last week is an important first step. The question now is, what is to be done."
The community listening sessions will take place on the next three Thursday evenings; times and locations have yet to be determined.