Twenty minutes after the East Portland community listening session on racial profiling was due to start last Thursday, May 25, the East Portland Community Center was notable for one thing: the absence of community.
Pretzels and soda remained unopened while five cops (still distinguishable by their haircuts, despite wearing street clothes) talked with hungry-looking journalists and Acting Police Chief Rosie Sizer.
"We honestly don't know what's going to happen—we throw these parties and then it's a question of who shows up," admitted Sizer.
Another 15 minutes passed before the hearing started, and a scant two people showed up to give testimony on racial profiling by police in their neighborhoods. For a meeting on one of the most heated topics in Portland, the lack of turnout was hard to explain.
Humboldt resident Clifford Walker was one of the two citizens to speak.
"I try to remove the chip from my shoulder, but my interaction with Portland's police throughout my lifetime has been negative. The only time I have been physically abused in my life has been by Portland police officers," he began.
Walker said he wants more of Portland's cops to live in the neighborhoods they police, and said it will remain hard for the police bureau to establish trust with citizens if unions continue to resist random drug testing for officers.
"If an officer shoots somebody, they screen the people who were shot, not the people doing the shooting," he explained.
In a breakout session (organizers have designed the hearings to avoid direct confrontation, and feel such a structure helps), Chief Sizer sat next to Walker and said she wishes she had all the answers to Portland's racial profiling problem. She added that recruiting officers from racially diverse neighborhoods has been problematic, but she claims the situation is improving.
Sizer admitted to not having formed a position on drug testing. Her response left Walker dissatisfied.
Thursday's hearing was the second of five such planned events, and follows a May 17 report of traffic stop data released by the police bureau—a report that showed Portland's African American, Hispanic, and Latino drivers are more likely than whites to be pulled over, yet less likely to be carrying contraband items.
Jo Ann Bowman, associate director of Oregon Action, which is organizing the hearings along with the police, said she was disappointed that there haven't been more voices present from the community, but said many neighborhood residents won't attend because they don't trust the police.
"Talking is just the beginning, but most people are really afraid to have conversations with the police. There is a high level of distrust, with some people telling me, 'They're going to get my address and harass me if I speak out,'" she said.
Bowman said she hopes that as the hearings gather momentum more community members will feel comfortable attending.
After the hearing, Kayse Jama, a Somalian immigrant to Portland, summed up the mood. "For me, having a dialogue is fine, but what is the outcome?" he asked. "How, as a community, is this going to bring us together? Discussion is great, but what comes next?"
Jason Dahl, assistant director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center (which has also been instrumental in organizing the hearings), said he is hopeful the meetings will at least lead to a reform of the police complaint procedure, bringing more transparency.
"At the moment, the procedure for those with complaints is complex and intimidating, even when there are not language or cultural barriers involved," he said.
Sizer, who has been in her position since April, when Chief Derrick Foxworth was put on leave, said more voices from the community will mean a better discussion of the issues. She did, however, admit that the police bureau bears responsibility for improving relationships with communities of color.
The next hearing is at PSU Smith Memorial student union, room 327, 1825 SW Broadway, Thursday, June 1 at 6 pm.