Robert King, head of the Portland Police Association (PPA), has a big New Year's Resolution: to sit on the mayor's racial profiling commission, and involve the union in discussion about the controversial issue.
The move marks a dramatic U-turn in King's attitude toward engaging with the community on racial profiling. Since May, King had essentially boycotted a series of "listening sessions" on the contentious issue. And King publicly told the mayor on October 19, 2006, that a series of community listening sessions on profiling had effectively labeled Portland's cops as racist.
"It wasn't productive, it wasn't a discussion we were going to engage in," he said. ["You're Calling Us Racist," News, Oct 26, 2006].
Since then, King has faced intense pressure to come to the table, both from local media and those involved in setting up the commission—including Oregon Action Associate Director Jo Ann Bowman, and Alejandro Queral, executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center (NWCRC).
King refused to do so, and even avoided Bowman's calls for some weeks following his outburst at city hall, according to her. But King finally met with her at the African American-owned Reflections coffee shop on NE Killingsworth two weeks ago, to tell her he had reconsidered.
"I actually think, quite frankly, it was starting to make him look bad," says Bowman. "Either he had to start talking, or admit he was going to be a hindrance to the process. But I didn't think we could be successful without the union at the table."
"Anytime, anywhere somebody is going to talk about an action involving one of our officers, it's important that we are there," King told the Mercury this week. "Having met with Jo Ann, we shared our legitimate perspectives and I actually regret not having come to the table sooner. I think it is good, in 2007, for the union to be involved in these talks."
King will be at a city council session to appoint the mayor's racial profiling committee on January 10, and at the commission's first meeting on January 30. He is likely to face unwelcome pressure from within his own union for participating, he acknowledges. "There will always be those with strong opinions, and it is our responsibility to represent those people in the discussions."
News of the union's decision is likely to be seen as a vindication of Police Chief Rosie Sizer's leadership. She decided to proceed with the initial community engagement process despite King's resistance, and has made tackling racial profiling one of her priorities as chief—even agreeing to co-chair the new committee, alongside Bowman.
"From [King's] membership standpoint, it is important that they represent themselves in these discussions rather than rely on police management," Sizer told the Mercury (the PPA's membership is drawn from the cops' rank and file, while higher-ranking lieutenants, captains, and commanders have a separate union). "These are difficult discussions, sometimes, but I think it is important to have them and I think all parties need to be at the table for that to take place."
"I'm glad King has reconsidered," says Queral at the NWCRC. "It takes the kind of leadership that I've heard he has, and I think he's got a desire to sit down with us and get things done."
The committee, which aims to eliminate racial profiling in the next five years, has secured $30,000 from the city's budget surplus to fund a staffer, whose time will be split equally with the mayor's new human rights commission, a group that will convene in the coming months.
Meanwhile, Queral and Bowman are negotiating additional private funding to supplement the city's contribution—to pay for things like public education programs, as called for in the listening sessions report—and expect to announce at least one major donation soon.