Mayor Tom Potter gave Acting Police Chief Rosie Sizer the permanent job last Thursday, June 22—a week after demoting her predecessor, Derrick Foxworth, to captain.
One of Sizer's biggest challenges is to address the concerns of Portland's African American community over racial profiling: The bureau's recent traffic stop statistics show black drivers are nearly four times more likely than whites to be stopped in downtown Portland—and more likely to be searched, even though fewer are found to possess contraband after searches.
The night before her full appointment, Sizer was at the last of five community listening sessions on the issue of racial profiling, at Portland Community Media on NE Martin Luther King. She told the Mercury that attending the sessions has changed her view of the issue.
"I think for most police officers, when the issue of race is brought up, it happens when they are being asked to intercede, and it's easier to dismiss. But hearing good people make their case time and time again at these hearings moves me," she says.
The sessions, organized by activist group Oregon Action, have brought out testimony that has shed new light on the traffic stops data and expanded the dialogue from focusing on statistics to looking at the Portland Police Bureau's relationship with the community it serves.
At the final listening session, the community testimony that resonates most with Sizer is that of Paula West—a resident of Northeast Portland for 43 years—who was grabbed by a cop and threatened with arrest for trying to interfere in the chase of her adopted son, who was on his knees and being threatened with a Tazer at the time.
"Her deep hurt, and sense of being demeaned, and her outrage resonated," says Sizer, who spent a few minutes talking with West after the session, and thanked her for coming.
Asked how long it will take for the disparity in Portland's traffic stops data to change, Sizer admits it's disappointing there's been no statistical improvement since 2001.
"I'd like to say I'm going to work miracles, but I'm pragmatic and realistic enough to hope that we can chip away at it," she adds.
Oregon Action Associate Director Jo Ann Bowman is more optimistic.
"When policy makers pay attention, the [traffic stop] numbers get reduced pretty quickly. But the chief, people at the city, and community members all need to get involved," she says.
Oregon Action will submit a report to the mayor in the fall based on the sessions, and will include policy recommendations. Meanwhile, Sizer is pleased with public attention to the issue.
But she faces an uphill battle to convince the Portland Police Association (PPA)—the union that represents all 950 rank-and-file officers—that racial profiling is an issue worth discussing, before she can implement changes. In this month's edition of the PPA's publication, Rap Sheet, editor Detective Peter Simpson writes: "My suggestion? Don't change a thing. We aren't doing anything wrong."
Simpson, who did not return the Mercury's calls, concludes the article: "There are a good number of people that will always claim bias and blame others for their problems. Our job isn't to worry about that, but to keep the community safe."
PPA President Robert King says he understands what Simpson is saying, and that racial profiling is an issue that is inclined to escalate, which is why he appreciates Sizer's dialogue and community-focused approach.
"It's not that racial profiling isn't an issue worth talking about, but it's a question of perspective. Officers believe they are out working hard to keep people safe and they don't like being called racist," he says.