Oregon state Rep. Janelle Bynum, who is black, said a constituent called the police on her Tuesday while she was canvassing in her district this week.
Bynum represents parts of East Portland, Gresham and Happy Valley, and is running for her second term in Oregon’s House of Representatives.
She had just finished talking to a constituent and was typing notes into her phone when a Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy pulled up.
The incident has gone viral as an example of racial profiling and the unwanted and potentially risky encounters with police black people experience regularly in public spaces.
Janelle Bynum spoke with OPB about the incident, the deputy’s response, and the grace she wants to extend to the constituent who called 911.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q&A with Janelle Bynum
Amelia Templeton: Would you briefly describe where you were and what you were doing?
Janelle Bynum: I was around 125th and Sunnyside, I think it’s Clackamas precinct 411. I had two blocks to finish my turf from the day before. I was just going door-to-door. I had about 30 houses.
It was a normal canvassing day. It was bright, it was sunny. I was wishing I could scale down for the holiday like everyone else, but I was out meeting my commitment to my voters that I would come and listen and talk with them.
Templeton:How often have you been doing this door to door canvassing?
Bynum: Probably 30 to 40 hours a week, it seems like. For the past six, eight weeks.
Templeton: Tell me what happened next.
Bynum: I remember there were two houses. There was one where House Speaker [Tina] Kotek had just canvassed on Saturday. I met the constituent there, and we had a conversation about how neat it was for her to meet the speaker. Then the next house was a lady who, my notes indicated from the last time my campaign had talked to her, that her mom wanted a voter registration card.
When I walked up to her door, I identified her and I said, “Did your mom get that voter registration card?” I finished the conversation with her, I was walking out. I usually stand in the driveway, the sidewalk part of the driveway, so I can take notes and be in public and very visible.
That’s when the officer pulled up. I just kind of threw my head back, and I was like, “Oh great. Here we go.” That’s what happened.
Templeton: What did he tell you?
Bynum: He said something to the effect of “Let me guess, you’re selling something?” And I said “I’m actually the state representative for this area, and I’m talking to my voters and constituents. Did somebody call the police on me? What was I accused of doing?”
He said that someone said that it looked like I was casing out the area, and I was spending an inordinate amount of time on my cellphone after walking away from each house. I was like, “Yeah, I’m putting my notes in. That’s pretty disappointing.”
I said, “Can you do me a favor, can you go with me and talk to the person? I just want to introduce myself.”
[The deputy contacted the caller and then handed Bynum a cellphone so the two could talk.]
I couldn’t quite make out the name. She apologized. I asked her, “Would it be OK if I dropped a note off at her house?” She said something like, they were just trying to keep the neighborhood safe, something to that effect. It might have been a low-cellphone range area. She was in quite a hurry to get off the phone with me. So we said goodbye.
I talked to the officer afterward. He had told me that somebody had called on kids doing magazine sales. I just said, if people would just come out and talk, instead of assuming the worst in people, it would be a lot better. That can be really unsafe, for people to just call the police on other people.
Templeton: It sounds like the woman who called, she apologized and then got off the phone with you fairly quickly. Did you have a chance to talk with her about how this encounter made you feel, or how it affected your safety?
Bynum: Trying to recall what, up until this conversation it hasn’t really sunk in as a traumatic moment. My memory of with whom I shared the concern about the danger that it could put people in … I either told the officer, I know I told him, and I think I told her.
But I think she heard it in my voice, and I think I tried to convey that I was just out there talking to neighbors and constituents. And she said, “I didn’t mean to cause you any harm.”
Templeton: It seems like this is a particularly difficult situation for you to navigate, because the person who is calling about you, and potentially doing it on the grounds of your race is also one of your constituents. I’m just curious, what are the sort of things you’re trying to sort out, dealing with this incident as an African-American woman who’s representing people?
Bynum: It’s a lot to unpack. It boils down to a couple of things.
The first is: What constitutes suspicious behavior and on whose part?
The second is: When politicians are talking with constituents, what’s the best way to do it? Some people love when I come to their doors, I mean jump for joy. Other people are annoyed. You walk a fine line. That’s why I keep such good notes. I take the person’s temperature, for how long they want to talk, whether they’re an engaged voter or not.
There’s the significant sacrifice that elected officials make, and how little I think people realize that we actually do. The time I was out there was time I wasn’t spending with my kids. I just picked them up from YMCA camp, and dropped them at home, and went to hit my turf.
And I think the last thing is, when you’re trying to understand what happened — and race is a component in it — I think the most important thing that I’m really fighting for is for people not to jump to conclusions based on race. I think that manifests itself most crucially in our criminal justice system.
People want me to say this is completely about race. And I’m not completely there yet because I don’t know what the woman was thinking. I don’t know what her experience was five minutes before she saw or felt like she needed to report. I don’t know. The same grace I am offering her is what I would like for people to be offered when they are in front of a judge, or in front of a jury, or when I come to do the door and I ask for your vote. I want you to assume the best in me. I don’t want you to fill in the blanks about how bad I might be. That’s how I’m trying to sort it out. And it is terribly complicated.
Templeton: The last thing I want to ask you about is the deputy you interacted with. What was your experience with him and how did he handle the situation?
Bynum: I’ve only had one other experience with a deputy, and the two were remarkably different, which is why I made the [Facebook] post. It was really about him. He was professional. He didn’t leap to conclusions. He de-escalated. And I think he tried to put me at ease, because it was a situation that wasn’t very fun to be in, to be accused of being suspicious. I think a lot of people brush that off, but that’s not a comfortable situation.
I think that’s the type of behavior and community interaction that people want [with law enforcement], that makes us all safer.
Templeton: So you publicly shared this incident not just to draw attention to how concerning it is that something like this could happen in your district, but to draw attention to the fact that this individual officer handled this in a way that other people could learn from?
Bynum: Right. I don’t know if it was normal, or within protocol for him to call back and try to arrange a discourse between the two of us, but it was the right call. Because I think what we’re doing is, we’re not allowing people who called the police to see the other side of what actually happened.
We’re not giving that feedback loop. I’m an engineer and there’s a diagram that gives you a feedback loop and it helps change the behavior of the system. We’re not getting to see that. What was important to me was that this person knew that I was their elected official, and that they could count on me being at the doors in their neighborhood yesterday, today and tomorrow.