New numbers released at the mayor's Racial Profiling Committee last Thursday, March 15, coincided with a softened party line from the union on the controversial issue—and a first look at Police Chief Rosie Sizer's plan on how to tackle it.
The new Racial Profiling numbers showed African Americans made up 24 percent of bike and pedestrian stops made by Portland's police in 2006—despite making up just 6.6 percent of the population, according to the 2000 census.
Previously, the committee was working from traffic stop data alone, which showed African Americans made up just 14 percent of traffic stops. But at the group's meeting in February, co-chair Jo Ann Bowman, of activist group Oregon Action, asked the police bureau to see its data on pedestrian and bike stops as well.
These new numbers—handed out at the committee's March 15 meeting—coincided with a marked change in Portland Police Association President Robert King's attitude about racial profiling. Until January, King was publicly refusing to assist the committee, citing concerns about police officers being labeled as racists ["About Face," News, Jan 4]. But he told Bowman last week: "I really do think, given a whole host of historical and deeply emotional factors, we are attempting to inch forward.
"I heard you say very clearly that your involvement in the committee was a result of people feeling hurt by the police," he added. "I heard you clearly—we've talked about restoring trust and respect. It's very delicate, and I am committed to helping with that in some way."
King says his changed perspective isn't related to the new numbers, and told the Mercury he had "not even looked at them.
He adds: "I understand that community members feel or believe that [officers] who interacted with them engaged in racial bias. That's a real feeling for them, and the numbers demonstrate what they know to be true already."
Bowman is not surprised by the new pedestrian and bike stop numbers, and says they are reflective of reality for many African Americans in Portland. But she is pleased that "Robert appears to be shifting more to a position of cooperation."
Bowman adds that focusing on statistics or terminology is not necessarily a priority for her.
"If Robert prefers to call it 'racial bias' or some other term, then as long as we can move forward, that's okay with me," she told the Mercury.
Also at the March 15 meeting, Sizer proposed her racial profiling action plan, which will be discussed in depth by the committee in April (when Mayor Tom Potter will also be in attendance).
One of Sizer's most controversial proposals is tracking traffic and pedestrian stop data by individual officers—potentially rooting out "bad apple" cops. But Sizer will only agree to that sort of measure if officers' names are kept private—for that to happen, a public records exemption must be passed in Salem.
A measure that would track individual officers is likely to meet opposition from people like King, who have concerns about opening officers to charges of racial bias. Meanwhile, others are unhappy that Sizer's proposal doesn't go far enough.
"We're looking to establish accountability through transparency, and [not naming individual officers] would move us away from that," says Alejandro Queral of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center. "We don't want them blocked from public scrutiny."
Queral has also been publicly critical of the mayor's office for failing to appoint a facilitator to the committee despite establishing the committee three months ago. The mayor's public policy manager, Maria Rubio, took responsibility for hiring somebody in January, but the position has yet to be filled.
With Sizer's plan on the table, the committee is likely to begin its most contentious discussions soon, and there is concern that, without a facilitator in place, the group won't accomplish as much.
"The mayor has been publicly very supportive of the committee, but we need to see real-world commitment in terms of appointing a staffer to the committee," says Queral.
Rubio—who sent one of her assistants to the committee meeting last week in her place—did not return the Mercury's call for comment.