Jonathan Case / Special to OPB

As nightly conflicts in Portland draw headlines, reforms gradually advance

By Courtney Sherwood (OPB)
Aug. 10, 2020 1 p.m.

Two stories of the Black Lives Matter movement are unfolding side by side in Portland.

One garners global headlines and prompts tweets from the president, as protesters gather nightly outside government buildings or the police union for clashes marked by vandalism and fireworks on one side, tear gas and crowd control weapons on the other.

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But elsewhere in Portland, and in the greater metro area, thousands of people have joined peaceful protests against racism and police brutality, day after day, often with nary an officer in sight. Violinists gathered by the dozens to mourn the Colorado police killing of a Black string musician. Hundreds of cars circle the city each week in a caravan led by the grandmother of a 17-year-old shot by police in 2017. Impromptu protests appear on street corners in neighborhoods across the region. And signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” proliferate in storefronts and front yards across the metro area.

As these dueling approaches to a common cause continue more than 70 days after George Floyd’s death, the underlying push to fight racism and hold police accountable for violence is bringing change to Oregon.

About 85 people attended a march and protest at Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 72nd Avenue in Portland on Sunday, June 7. It was one of a number of family friendly demonstrations aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement in Portland over the weekend.

About 85 people attended a march and protest at Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 72nd Avenue in Portland on Sunday, June 7.

Courtney Sherwood / OPB

In neighborhoods and on Zoom conferences, in school boards, legislative committees and city parks, policies have changed, police budgets have been cut, old leaders have stepped aside to make way for new leaders. It’s just a beginning, say city leaders, lawmakers and the activists pushing them to do more. Some changes are superficial or easily reversed. The biggest goals of the Black Lives Matter movement have not been achieved.

But it’s more than activists have managed to achieve in decades of local effort.

Incremental steps toward police reform

Floyd’s death may have been the final straw that catalyzed a protest movement, but advocates in the greater Portland area have been fighting for reform since long before the Black Lives Matter movement was born.

In 1985, after off-duty security guard Lloyd “Tony” Stevenson stopped a thief, a Portland police officer put Stevenson in a fatal “sleeper” hold. On the day of the 31-year-old Black man’s funeral, two officers sold t-shirts with the words “Don’t choke ‘em. Smoke ‘em.” In 1996, 20-year-old Deontae Keller was shot in the back by Portland police when he ran away after he was pulled over. In 2003, Kendra James was shot in the head and killed by police as she tried to drive away from a traffic stop. The list goes on.

Over the decades, activists have won promises for reforms, committees have been created to monitor police, yet the apparent support of city leaders has not been enough to bring meaningful changes — in part because of limits baked into the city charter, union contract and state law.

Portland police officers’ union contract is set in stone for now. The City Council recently voted to maintain the status quo for the coming year, to give officials time to continue negotiations stalled by COVID-19.

But incremental changes have been made to state law this year. More may come in the special session that starts Monday. And voters will have a chance to rewrite parts of the city charter in November to add new police accountability measures.

That measure would add new power to a review process that presently allows police supervisors to overrule the recommendations made by the committees charged with investigating police misconduct.

An officer with the Portland Police Bureau attends the National Night Out in Maywood Park, Ore., on Saturday, July 27, 2019.

An officer with the Portland Police Bureau.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

If passed, a new board would be created to investigate deaths by police, discrimination, and law enforcement use of force. City Council would also have the power to discipline and fire officers — an authority that’s vested almost entirely in the police bureau right now.

“We have heard for years from community members that an independent police oversight body with real teeth is much needed, and right now we have the momentum and political power to turn that into reality,” City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty told OPB in an email in June. “There are many paths to police accountability, and I believe this is one of the pieces to the puzzle.”

Candace Avalos, who sits on the 11-member Citizen Review Committee presently charged with improving police accountability, testified in favor of the changes, saying Portland needs “truly independent review of the police to hold them accountable for the harm they cause the community.”

Oregon’s Legislature has also taken steps toward police reform. Under laws passed during an accelerated three-day special session in June:

  • Police must now report misconduct by fellow officers, and take action to stop it when they can.
  • The state has to keep records about police disciplinary actions at departments across Oregon, and law enforcement agencies must check these records when hiring.
  • It’s harder for arbitrators to overturn police disciplinary findings, a change that police unions strongly opposed.
  • Tear gas and chokeholds, while still allowed in some situations, are far more restricted than they have been.

A special committee charged with looking into further police reforms has drafted a raft of new proposals, including stricter tear gas limits, a complete ban on chokeholds, and more clarity about how and when police officers must report misconduct by their colleagues.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, addresses the state Senate during a special session called to address police reform and coronavirus concerns, at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore., on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, addresses the state Senate during a special session called to address police reform and coronavirus concerns, at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore., on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

Pool photo by Brian Hayes / Statesman Journal

But it’s not clear how quickly these proposals will advance in Salem, with legislators divided about the role policy debates should play in the year’s special session when they convene on Monday to tackle the growing financial crisis stemming from the pandemic.

It’s just a beginning, Sen. Lew Frederick told OPB in June. “We still have much work to do … to get to a place where our communities can genuinely feel safe around those who are sworn to serve and protect them.”

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Individual accountability

While Portland leaders push for legislative changes that will allow them to hold officers more accountable, other agencies in the greater metro area have found ways to take action.

In West Linn, where law enforcement been scrutinized for years for racial profiling and a racist culture, a report highlighting the racially motivated arrest of a Black man was released on May 29.

Two weeks later, the officer involved was fired and acting Police Chief Peter Mahuna pledged change: “The West Linn Police Department is committed to acknowledging our mistakes, and making necessary policy changes to prevent future misconduct and loss of trust moving forward.”

In Washington County, the sheriff’s office received an email in late May alleging a jail deputy used racial slurs online in 2003. That prompted a fresh look at the deputy’s record that ultimately led to his indictment on new charges of assault and unlawful use of a weapon for a violent incident in the jail.

And in Clark County, Washington, prosecutors called the Vancouver Police Department’s search of a Black man “unlawful,” despite police statements that the search had been reasonable.

Cutting funding and changing rules

“Defund the police” has become a rallying cry of some Black Lives Matter protesters, but those words mean different things to different people. The most extreme advocates wish to abolish law enforcement agencies altogether. Others want to shift how tax dollars are spent, by funding social service programs in lieu of law enforcement to respond to a subset of community calls.

Portland-area agencies have made small steps toward shifting law enforcement dollars — though the decisions made so far fall far short of what some advocates want.

Next year’s city police budget will cut $15 million from the bureau. Police will no longer be used as law enforcement on TriMet buses and light rail trains, and officers will be pulled from schools. Close to $5 million in police funding will go to the new Portland Street Response program, which will dispatch unarmed people to answer calls about homelessness.

Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who voted against the police budget and said the cuts did live up to protester demands to cut $50 million, still praised the city’s police spending plan as a positive step.

“What is happening today is big. It’s not everything you wanted, but it’s not incremental,” she said in a message to protesters on the day the cuts were passed. “Please take a moment to celebrate this victory.”

Multnomah County likewise made cuts to its law enforcement budget for the coming year — though its $1.7 million reduction in sheriff’s office funding from a roughly $165.6 million allocation was far smaller than the 20% cut that some activists had sought.

“I recognize that this budget does not reflect the magnitude of change being demanded by protesters, advocates and employees,” County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal acknowledged when the budget passed. “This is just the beginning.”

Outside Portland city limits, the push for reform has also brought a commitment to change.

Twenty-six mayors in the Portland area signed on to a pledge to tackle systemic racism in their communities: “We recognize our responsibility to heed this collective expression of grief and justice with humility, and we accept our obligation to be agents of institutional change,” they wrote in a joint letter released in June.

West Linn — where the police department has been plagued by racism that’s led to civil payouts and lawsuits — created a police accountability task force in July. Hillsboro leaders are gathering ideas now as they review potential policing changes there.

And in Southwest Washington, the criminal justice system took a renewed look at racial justice, as the Clark County Sheriff’s Office agreed to remove provocative “thin blue line” decals from official vehicles.

Different visions, a unified push for reform

Some protesters say they won’t stop until systemic racism itself is dismantled in the United States. Others have specific metrics they will see as markers of success: the $50 million cut from the Portland Police Bureau’s budget, legislation so city and state officials can more easily prosecute or fire police accused of misconduct, and new public safety standards that put Black lives and priorities first.

A plan dubbed “Reimagine Oregon,” developed by a coalition of nonprofits and individual civil rights organizers who saw an opportunity in the monthslong protest movement, has the most formal support, with buy-in from elected officials at every level of Oregon’s political system.

Its far-ranging demands call for an end to police patrols on school campuses, decriminalization of fare evasion on public transit, shifting homeless outreach from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office to social service agencies, cracking down on housing discrimination against Black Oregonians and much more.

“Oregon this is your chance,” said Kali Thorne Ladd, executive director of Kairos PDX, an education-focused nonprofit that was involved in developing the proposals. “Now is your chance to prove that Black Lives Matter in a tangible and actionable way.”

Kinsey Smyth speaks to a crowd of demonstrators from the steps of the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, Ore., July 23, 2020.

Kinsey Smyth speaks to a crowd of demonstrators from the steps of the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, Ore., July 23, 2020.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Kinsey Smyth, 23, has organized peaceful protests by day, and spoken to demonstrators from the steps of the Multnomah County Justice Center by night. She sees the quiet vigils, the loud marches and the divided approaches to a common goal, and said that at 73 nights and counting, the movement may have brought some change, but there’s much more for politicians to deliver before she expects Portland’s daytime marches or nightly clashes with police to end.

“So many countless lives have been lost at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us,” Smyth said. “We’ve had enough. This is no longer going to go without accountability held. This is no longer going to go with silence. We will speak up. We will speak out. We will stand up. And we will not let this happen any longer.”

Amid Portland’s two side-by-side protest movements, one drawing families by day, the other nightly clashing with police, demonstrators may bring different visions of a better world, but in this tale of two cities and many visions, the energy pushing for change has become a unifying force.

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