Portland considers a new approach to facing its history of racist policing

By Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
Jan. 4, 2021 1 p.m.

An approach made famous in post-apartheid South Africa is endorsed by Mayor Ted Wheeler. But a proponent of the effort says Portland police have not shown willingness to engage in public introspection.

Portland is moving forward with plans to form a truth-and-reconciliation commission to address the city police bureau’s historic mistreatment of communities of color.

The details need to be hashed out, but the commission will be tasked with airing and acknowledging the history of discrimination and racism by the Portland Police Bureau.


The Portland Committee for Community Engaged Policing recommended in June that the city expedite the proposed commission, and Mayor Ted Wheeler endorsed the plan. The engaged-policing committee then established a subcommittee charged with figuring out who will serve on the commission and what issues they will examine.

“The special subcommittee will be...responsible for helping plan the purpose and the mission and what the truth and reconciliation commission will look in that sense,” Portland Committee for Community Engaged Policing Co-chair Taji Chesimet said at the committee’s Dec. 15 meeting.

Related: How Portland’s racist history informs today’s protests

Truth-and-reconciliation commissions have been used around the world to establish an honest and inclusive history in the wake of abuses by dictators and military regimes, or to help bring communities together after periods of inter-group conflict. Most famously, the South African truth-and-reconciliation commission, established in the wake of apartheid, focused on stories from individuals affected by and responsible for perpetrating apartheid atrocities. Commissions have also been established in Sierra Leone, Chile and Canada.

The concept isn’t new to the United States, either. In 2004, Greensboro, North Carolina, impaneled a commission to address the impact of a 1979 Ku Klux Klan and Nazi attack on racial and economic justice protesters that resulted in five protesters being killed and a number of others wounded.


Maine and the Wabanaki Confederacy formed a commission in 2012 to document incidents going back to 1978 of Native American children being sent to foster care at a disproportionately high rate. The commission’s final report found that the events constituted cultural genocide.

The historically rocky relationship between the Portland Police Bureau and the city’s residents came to a violent head this summer when thousands took to the streets for months of sustained demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence. A 2018 report published by the city’s police found the bureau is “operating from a trust deficit and is seen as separate from the community.”

A photo of a Portland police patch on an officer's uniform.

A patch on a Portland police officer's uniform.

Michael Clapp / OPB

“The community and some officers feel that an acknowledgment of the history of racism in Portland and in the PPB is a necessary first step to improved trust and legitimacy,” that report said.

In a statement, Police Chief Chuck Lovell said the commission could be a catalyst to move forward as a community.

“The Police Bureau has an important role to play and we hope that many others will participate to bring healing to those who have suffered,” he said.

Portland Committee for Community Engaged Policing Co-chair Elliott Young hopes a truth and reconciliation commission will be a first step toward changing behavior.

“My hope is that a truth and reconciliation commission can begin the work of acknowledging past and continuing racist policing,” Young said. “One could imagine a forward thinking police bureau that would see this as an opportunity to recognize the mistakes that were made in the past in the hopes to learn from them.”

Young said Portland police initially wanted the commission to cover all city bureaus but the mayor and the engaged-policing committee agreed it should focus on the police bureau specifically. So far, he said, he hasn’t seen evidence from the bureau that it is willing to engage in public introspection.