Last night's daytime arrest of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery—slammed into a soda machine by riot cops at the McDonald's that that national reporters covering Ferguson had claimed as a wifi-friendly bureau office—came close to overshadowing the story Lowery had filed before he was roughed up yesterday.
It was about the Ferguson police department's longstanding troubles with racial bias—troubles that predated the shooting of Michael Brown.
The department bears little demographic resemblance to the citizens of this St. Louis suburb, a mostly African American community whose suspicions of the law enforcement agency preceded Saturday afternoon’s shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who this week had been headed to technical college.
But while the racial disparity between the public here and its protectors has come to define the violent aftermath of Brown’s death, the department’s problems stretch back years and include questions about its officers’ training and racial sensitivity.
The office of Missouri’s attorney general concluded in an annual report last year that Ferguson police were twice as likely to arrest African Americans during traffic stops as they were whites.
And late last year, the state chapter of the NAACP filed a federal complaint against the St. Louis County police department, whose officers are now assisting Ferguson’s force since the shooting, over racial disparities in traffic stops, arrests and other actions.
Read it if you haven't yet; Lowery's reporting provides some pretty stark and obvious context for the nightly protests that police officers have seen fit to put down with dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets, and piercing sound cannons.
And if you're an especially careful reader, you might spot a few things that ring just as familiar in Portland, Oregon, as they do in a distressed heartland suburb. We're clearly doing a lot better than Ferguson. But that doesn't mean the Portland Police Bureau isn't grappling with some of the very same issues feeding unrest several hundred miles away.
Our police bureau is still whiter than the city it oversees (although that's changing). Its officers tend not to even live in Portland. When officers stop and search pedestrians and drivers, African Americans are disproportionately targeted—even though, just like in Ferguson, whites who are searched are more likely to actually have contraband. The same goes for enforcement of the city's "exclusion" zones for gun and drug crimes.
Consider what we wrote this winter after the bureau released a report studying five months of stops and searches in 2011:
Almost 12 percent of traffic stops by the Portland Police Bureau involved an African American person—even though African Americans make up about 6 percent of the city's population.
The rate for pedestrian stops was even more disproportionate, at nearly 20 percent, as were rates for how often black and white Portlanders were searched. Black Portlanders were asked for "consent" searches and patted down more often than whites—even though they were less likely to have contraband.
Much of that disparity appears to be driven by which police unit makes the stop. Gang and patrol units were far more likely to stop an African American person than traffic cops.
Confronted with similar data in 2012, I reported the bureau admitting, to its credit, something it never had before: Part of the problem, cops said at a public meeting, might really be racism. They promised to start gathering better data to more deeply analyze the reasons behind those disparities.
"Context is important. But owning [potential racism] is important, too," Sergeant Greg Stewart, a member of the bureau's three-year-old stat-crunching team, told the Mercury. "We don't want to make excuses, either."
Portland's political leadership is doing a better job taking these issues seriously than other places. That shouldn't be lost on anyone. Police commanders and sergeants have all been through a fairly groundbreaking training program on systematized racism.
And there have been other concrete steps. Take diversity.
Back in 2011, I wrote a column poking at the bureau receiving a "diversity" award for making incremental gains in diversity hiring (at the time, African Americans made up 3 percent of the police bureau, about half of their percentage citywide, according to Census figures). But then I learned something notable last year, during talks of budget cuts to the police bureau. Looking at the demographics for the most junior cops on the force—the ones most likely to have faced layoffs if that's what happened (it didn't)—it turned out that the demographic profile of those 29 officers actually mirrored the city's overall numbers. That's the result of a declared and sustained hiring push, and it does appear to be slowly paying off.
But we could and should always be working at doing better.
In 2010, I did a first-of-its-kind analysis tracking where police employees lived compared to other city workers. At the time, there was talk about adding incentives for cops to live and work in Portland—an obvious subject to discuss after the breach of trust that followed the highly controversial shootings that year of Aaron Campbell and Keaton Otis. Mayoral candidates, at forums, were still citing my reporting on the subject in 2012.
According to a Mercury analysis of all Portland workers' home ZIP codes, as little as one quarter of the police bureau's 1,204 employees actually live within city limits—a figure that climbs only slightly, to almost one third, if you generously count every worker who lives in a ZIP code that even briefly crosses the city's borders.
Even in that best-case scenario, the share of police workers who live in Portland still lags behind nearly every other city bureau and office (only the fire bureau comes close). And, according to a review of 2008 census data prepared for the Mercury by a state workforce analyst, it also significantly trails the 43 percent of private citizens who both live and work in Portland....
"When you're talking about community policing, it's concerning when the numbers suggest that officers don't like the community," says Chris O'Connor, a Multnomah County public defender and police reform advocate. "What you end up with is the community perception that the police are like an occupying army.
"A teacher at the school is not going to have students whose parents are police officers. A grocery store manager will only see officers when they call with a problem. They're not his customers."
After the campaign, though? Radio silence. Portland's cops still largely drive in for their shifts keeping order among people who aren't their neighbors and then drive home to unwind and cavort with the people who actually are.
O'Connor's words—"occupying army"—sounded ominous and distant four years ago, before Occupy, before Ferguson, before people started writing essays about the militarization of our police force. They still sound ominous. They don't sound nearly as removed.
Update 3:45 PM: Mayor Charlie Hales has issued a statement responding to the scenes of violence in Ferguson—forthrightly acknowledging that people of color everywhere have a legitimate fear of police when they shouldn't. (But also taking some time to talk up his administration's efforts around race issues.)
My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Michael Brown, the young man shot in Ferguson, Mo. My thoughts and prayers go out to the entire community of Ferguson. And also to the African-American community in Portland, and throughout Oregon, and throughout our nation.
No law-abiding people should ever have reason to fear the police. Yet we must honestly admit that, too often, this is not true for a wide swath of our community: people of color.
That’s why I’ve made it a priority to join with many of my fellow mayors to focus on the lives of young black men in our community. Mayors like Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, and Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans, and I are focusing on this very topic through the Black Male Achievement Initiative.
In Portland, we are focusing on ways to collaborate with the community and to intercede on behalf of young African-Americans in the areas of jobs, education and incarceration rates. This is vital work. That is as true in Portland as it is everywhere.
Also in Portland, we have put a priority on new training for our Police Bureau, with an emphasis on the appropriate use of force, on de-escalation and on equity. Bureau members have begun receiving training on systemic inequities, implicit bias and cultural diversity. In July, as mayor and police commissioner, I joined in three intensive days of training for my staff and the top officials of the police department, on these very topics. The training, called White Men as Full Diversity Partners, was controversial to some but understood by many. But this week’s headlines provide just one example of why such training is vital.
We, as a society, have consistently failed multiple groups of Americans. We cannot continue to do so in the future.