I attended my first “Race Talks” meeting, or perhaps my first Race Talk. This consists of a speech by some person knowledgeable about a subject, followed by small-group discussion, and consequently a greater level of understanding and dialogue concerning some topic about which stereotypes tend to stand in for first-hand acquaintance.
Tuesday night the topic was “The Law and Racial Profiling,” and the experts included my friend Dan Handelman, the director of Portland Copwatch, a group within which I have worked for the last couple of years. It was a fairly impressive presentation: Dan was joined by the chief of police of our city, Mike Reese, and by Kayse Jama, the director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing. All of these gentlemen are more than expert: they are committed activists with decades of substantial contributions to our community.
Nonetheless I am not impressed with either the result of the evening or the premise upon which “Race Talks” rests. I’ll come back to the topic later.
By far the most important exchange I had was with Dave Hardesty, who together with his wife Jo Ann had tracked a bill to strengthen police accountability through the state legislature this year and recently reported on the manner in which it was first welcomed, then killed.
People die in police custody: they are shot, beaten, tasered, killed. When brought up before the courts the law protects police officers in good standing by giving them a status that basically puts them beyond legal redress. All the officer who killed a suspect has to do is to say, “I was in fear of my life.” That’s what Officer Ron Frashour told the Grand Jury, despite the fact that an unarmed Aaron Campbell was running away from Frashour, who was flak-jacketed and crouched behind a police car at the time. And the Grand Jury found him not prosecutable. The jury foreman complained at the time about the fact, but the law as it is now says that we have to accept unreasonable claims by police officers that they felt threatened. They can beat, shoot, etc. you, and as long as they pronounce in public, “I felt my life was in danger,” they’re off: neither you, nor the City government, nor the courts can do anything to punish their brutality.
Jo Ann and Dave Hardesty co-ordinated the presentation of a bill in the House of Representatives to change the criterion from “he said he felt threatened” to “a reasonable person would have felt threatened”. A long series of hurdles big and little having been overcome, the bill was positively reported out of committee, but then the Democratic Party leadership killed it, and in confidence. The bill was sent back to committee to die — no reason given.
I asked Dave Hardesty what we could do now, and he spoke of Jo Ann’s idea that we could go after State Representatives who promise greater police accountability but then ignore or defeat efforts to obtain that; but he admitted to a certain degree of discouragement, a discouragement I share.
For here was Dan Handelman in his address telling us that 23 percent of pedestrians stopped by police, in a city 6 percent of whom are black, 25 percent of those arrested, 34 percent of those at whom police officers aim firearms, and 86 percent of those excluded from no-gun zones, are black. And Mike Reese, who radiated sincerity and good will, who’s a better public speaker than Dan, and who may well be our next mayor, promised better training. It seemed to me somewhat similar to Charlie Brown trying to kick a football being held by Lucy. We are to remain believers, no matter how many times the police have misbehaved in the past: “training” will fix it, not accountability.
Actually, I will admit my focus is somewhat to the side of the evening’s topic: there is racial profiling in the operation of the Portland Police Bureau, and the frowning on racial jokes that accompanies sensitivity training may indeed help with that. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t matter a whole lot to me the skin color of those victims of police brutality — although a disproportion of them happen to be black. What matters is that month after month, year after year, citizens continue to get killed by the police without trial, without conviction, without sentence of death.
The possibility exists that progress may come indirectly. It is possible that the sensitivity-trained police officers of the future will bring suspects alive back to the booking area, rather than maimed to the hospital or dead to the morgue. I can only hope so. For that was the future on offer by Chief Reese, and the legislative remedy offered by Executive Director Jama: racial profiling is Bad. Yeah, but police brutality is a lot worse, I think; but perhaps, just perhaps, the focus on the former will reduce the latter.