For more than a month and counting, Portlanders have taken to the streets demanding elected officials fundamentally change how the city approaches policing.
Right now, protesters calling for change from City Hall are addressing Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and the three city commissioners. But by next year, that body could look very different. Only two people are certain to be on the council: Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a longtime advocate for police reform, and newcomer Carmen Rubio, poised to become the city’s first Latinx commissioner.
Rubio is the only City Council candidate who sailed through the May primary without being forced into a runoff. In six months, she will step into the seat now occupied by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who’s retiring.
Unlike candidates still vying for seats on the Council — many of whom have by now released statements detailing policies they want enacted — Rubio has remained relatively quiet about what she’ll do when she steps into office.
But the commissioner-elect says she’s heard the call to dramatically reimagine public safety loud and clear — and is waiting to hear from Portlanders about what shape this should take.
“As someone who’s worked in the community for over a decade, I don’t want to put something out that feels rushed. I want it to actually be something that is very community-informed,” she said. “I know what it feels like to not have meaningful input into something, as a part of a community that is often left out of discussion and dialogue and policy.”
OPB caught up with Rubio, who shared her thoughts on protesters’ demands, response from police, and how this will shape her first term in office. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q&A with Carmen Rubio
Rebecca Ellis: Have you attended these protests? What was it like being there for you?
Carmen Rubio: One of the first ones I went to was the rally downtown with Commissioner Hardesty and the Urban League, and other community leaders.
Another time, I went to one of the marches, and I was just blown away. It was just so moving to me to feel the energy of the community, to hear the voices of a lot of these movement leaders — and these voices who have, in some cases, been at it forever, who have had such a presence over time, together with emerging leaders and young leaders who have been very vocal in their demand for justice.
It gave me a lot of hope for the future, and it really created the ambiance and the impression that this is truly a multigenerational movement, you know? This is something where everyone is touched, and everyone there together is calling for change. And just looking at the sea of people is just very striking in and of itself as well, because it was very multicultural, very diverse and a very inclusive movement. I think it just struck a chord for most people in this community.
Ellis: On the campaign trail, you’d laid out your priorities — housing affordability, homelessness, small business development… But when it comes to issues of police accountability, that felt like it was more a focus of one of your opponents, Candace Avalos, who is head of the Citizen Review Committee. I’m curious if you feel that’s a fair reading and whether weeks of protests have potentially brought policing more to the forefront of your priorities?
Rubio: I wouldn’t say that this has never been a priority; it’s always been a priority to me. It’s always been an ever-present reality in the work that I’ve done, and work with other communities and my own community. So that’s always been a priority, but there are just so many.
In my campaign, I talked a lot about certain things that our council needed to work towards — more police accountability, in particular, around deadly force. And some of the things that I cared about then, I still care about now and are still very resonant. Overall less militarization of policing and a more community-centered focus; exploring more non-lethal ways that exist to keep the peace; also training our officers to correct for their own implicit biases, racial biases and practices; and to be really transparent about where the growth needs to happen.
But probably one of the biggest things for me is to update the way that we hire and attract officers, that we revisit what our psychological evaluation and hiring processes are to ensure that we’re hiring officers that already possess the mindset that’s required for this job, which is that Black people and people of color are valued community members.
And that we’re recruiting for officers that are innately problem solvers, that they bring that orientation with them, that they want to help the vulnerable navigate towards systems of care that they need to stay safe. That’s where we should be starting.
And, of course, expand independence and representation of community and oversight bodies.
Those are just a few. There are further-reaching and more substantial demands that are happening now — calls for defunding, accountability and justice by a lot of our Black leaders and Black-led organizations.
And I’m not yet in that role as the commissioner, but I still am in my nonprofit role and in my advocacy role. And I feel very called to be in alignment and to stand in solidarity with the Black leadership and the Black community and Black-led organizations that are calling for this justice.
Ellis: It felt like the first big wave of reforms to come out of these protests came with the passage of the budget, an end to the PPB Gun Violence Reduction Team, school resource officers and transit police. Some saw this as a pretty momentous occasion, with this package coming together in the span of a few weeks. Others, including Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, said they thought it didn’t go nearly far enough and the Council didn’t meet the moment. Where do you fall?
Rubio: Well, I think it’s also important to recognize that the requests that have been made by Black-led organizations and Black leaders on this issue. They’ve wanted the opportunity and space to reimagine what public safety means for us today. And that’s bigger than just one passage of the budget.
And so we really need to think of this in terms of a paradigm shift. That’s really what we’re talking about here, and the decision to eliminate these things are very important steps forward. And I want to credit Commissioner Hardesty, who’s been working on these issues long before being her role as a city commissioner, as long as I’ve been working in the public sector.
It takes time to meaningfully engage with all participants and stakeholders to provide meaningful long-term reforms. And these are things that we need to make sure stick. And so the important thing is that the door is now open in an unprecedented way, and we need to make sure that we as a community elect leaders and we as, a community, continue to uplift the voices that sustain this mindset to keep that door open.
And that we see the change through until we have a public safety system and public safety philosophy that centers community and keeps us safe.
Ellis: Every night, we can hear thousands of protesters demanding the city defund the police bureau. Some want it totally disbanded and abolished. Others just want to see a bigger cut from the budget. Do you believe the police bureau should be further defunded and if so, how significantly?
Rubio: I’m still in my advocacy role. So I would have to say yes, I’m very supportive of these kinds of calls for change.
To me, it means more like a recalibration of our priorities. It means that we have to reimagine what a first responder is like in certain situations.
I mean, again, the fact that there was a report I heard on the news about how responding to homelessness made up about 50% of arrests in Portland [in 2017].
That is a flag. That is concerning. A law enforcement response to the houseless community is not what my definition of public safety means. It requires community care, not armed officers. So we need to provide the Black community and communities of color the time and space to envision what a first response looks like to the Portland of today. Like what does it mean to feel safe in our community? We need to do more of that.
There’s a lot of opportunity in this change. We need to think bigger than just what people are focusing on as one budget cycle. It’s a longer story. These kinds of oppressive systems took centuries to build, so we can’t shortchange ourselves by thinking that it’s only going to take a few months to solve.
It’s going to take a long, sustained effort that is community centered and government responsive.
Ellis: When you said you were supportive of these calls for defunding the police, people use that differently. Were you saying defund to an extent or defund completely?
Rubio: I mean it in the way that our community is meaning it, which is to reimagine it with that capacity. Like we still have public safety, but let’s think differently about what we do use that capacity to fund that is about public safety.
I would love to see public safety that embraced the ideals around restorative justice, for example. That’s what I think about when I think “reimagine” — it’s still public safety, there’s still accountability, there’s still ways to keep people safe, there’s still ways to respond to urgent or emergency situations, but how can we build it together or how can we reimagine it together in a way that everybody solidly knows what it means and feel safe and feels trust for what that concept is for Portland?
Ellis: Many believe that the police bureau has policed these protests with excessive force and weapons like CS gas are being used indiscriminately against protesters. What are your thoughts on the police response to these protests?
Rubio: Generally, I am very concerned about any use of force on demonstrators. I’ve read that there are other legal tools that exist for intervening. In general, I believe our police force should be frontline and upholding our First Amendment rights, however, should never endanger our own citizens and our own community members in order to protect them.
Ellis: Two commissioners have now called for a ban on the gas and a federal judge has restricted its use, citing evidence it was used excessively — but it’s still being used. Would you be supportive of a ban on the gas?
Rubio: Yes, I feel like, in principle, I would be supportive of the ban on tear gas. I don’t know the specifics of how it’s used for the force, but yeah, I do support a ban on tear gas.