The city of Portland is requesting proposals from outside groups to oversee a long-awaited truth and reconciliation commission addressing the Portland Police Bureau’s historic mistreatment of communities of color.
The request for proposals comes more than a year after Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler endorsed a plan put together by the Portland Committee for Community Engaged Policing. The committee is a community group mandated by the 2014 settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice in response to the bureau’s pattern of using excessive force against people in mental health crises.
After Wheeler endorsed the plan in October 2020, city council allocated $250,000 to support the commission.
In the scope of work, the city says it is looking for a firm or firms to lead the community and police bureau through a process “that will bring to light the truth of the history of racism in the City of Portland, the role the Portland Police Bureau has historically played in perpetuating that racism, and a reconciliation process that seeks to begin the long road of healing for all parties.”
Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office took up the task of hashing out the project details. Hardesty’s Community Justice Organizer Andre Miller used programs in several other cities and countries, including Greensboro, North Carolina, Ferguson, Missouri, Boston, Philadelphia, Peru and Rwanda as models in drafting the outline of Portland’s proposed plan.
The outside organization that wins the contract will be tasked with preparing the city council and the police bureau for the truth-telling process and then leading that process with the community as well as building a public archive of the results. Finally, the group will facilitate a community healing process “resulting in an artistic expression of their journey toward healing.”
“For this process to be a success it will need to be conducted independent of the Portland city council,” Matt McNally, Hardesty’s communications strategist, said.
McNally said the council did the work of setting the parameters for the commission but that to be successful it has to be independent.
Wheeler did not respond to OPB’s request for comment but was enthusiastic about the plan after endorsing the engaged policing committee’s plan on Oct. 14, 2020.
“In recognition of the trauma inflicted on BIPOC communities in Portland at the hands of the Portland Police Bureau, I am supportive of an acceleration of the plan to launch a Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Wheeler said at the time.
Similarly, Police Chief Chuck Lovell previously supported the commission saying it could be a catalyst to move forward as a community and that the police bureau has an important role to play.
While police leadership may be supportive, the union is unequivocally not. In April, after reviewing the request for proposals, Portland Police Association president Aaron Schmautz sent a letter to the city council saying the plan is based on data from 2018 and that the community is crying out for the city to rebuild the police bureau. Schmautz said spending a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayer money on this process “would shock the conscience.”
“The RFP presupposes something that’s inaccurate — that PPB is racist,” Schmautz wrote in his letter.
Schmautz included Oregon’s 2021 report on racial disparities in police stops as evidence Portland police officers don’t harbor racial bias. That report, however, found that Portland police searched and arrested Black people during traffic stops more often than white people in identical circumstances.
The Police Bureau’s own data showed Black people made up 18% of traffic stops in 2019 but only 5.8% of the population. The discrepancy was even larger for non-moving violation stops, a category for which officers have more latitude. The disparity was so large, it prompted Wheeler to direct the bureau to only pull over drivers who pose an immediate danger to public safety.
Truth and reconciliation commissions, however, are historically about more than addressing the current state of affairs. A 2004 commission in Greensboro, North Carolina addressed the impact of a 1979 Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party attack on racial justice protesters that killed five people. And in Maine, a truth and reconciliation commission was established to give a voice to and establish a more complete history of the Wabanaki people who had been involved with the state’s child welfare system.
The seemingly unbridgeable trust chasm between Portland residents and their police goes back decades. In 1936, Portland police officers arrested anti-fascists who were protesting against a swastika-clad visiting German warship. Two officers were fired after they dumped dead opossums on the steps of a Black-owned business in 1981 and police bureau Capt. Mark Kruger was suspended in 2010 after it was discovered he had built a memorial to Nazi soldiers in Rocky Butte Park. All three officers had their discipline overturned and returned to work. Kruger stayed with the bureau until he retired in March 2020.
Two months after he retired, the trust gap between the community and police widened still further when officers responded to protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police with night after night of violent crowd control tactics.
Schmautz did not respond to a request for comment.
Proposals are due to the city on Nov. 14, 2022, and work is expected to begin in May.