The City of Portland's problema-tic Drug- and Prostitution-Free Zones may have just gotten a lot more troubling—new data released by the police bureau possibly reveals that the "exclusion" zones are overwhelmingly targeted at African Americans.
The report, obtained by the Mercury on Tuesday, March 6, shows staggering racial discrepancies in the way exclusions are used in the three zones (North Portland, downtown, and SE 82nd). Between June 1 and October 31 of 2006, a total of 790 arrests were made in exclusion zones. Of those, 326—or 41 percent—were white, while 398—or 50 percent—were African American, despite the fact that African Americans make up only slightly more than 6 percent of the Portland population.
But the real discrepancy lies in the percentages of those arrests that led to 90-day exclusions from the zones. Of the white arrests, 191—or 58.6 percent—were given exclusions. But of the African Americans arrested, the exclusion rate was 100 percent.
In fact, in the downtown zone, it's more than 100 percent. There were 253 African Americans arrested on drug charges, but 270 African Americans were given exclusions, despite the fact that exclusions are supposed to be tied to arrests. Of the 227 white people arrested for drugs in the zone, only 149 were given exclusions.
Maria Rubio, the mayor’s public safety policy advisor, received the numbers weeks ago—the data is dated November 2006—and said she’s “concerned” about the numbers, but doesn’t have an explanation. She’s asked the police bureau’s vice division to analyze the numbers, and expects an answer in the next week.
But Sgt. Brian Schmautz, the bureau’s spokesperson, says he has at least a partial explanation. According to him, the “overwhelming majority” of the white arrests downtown—and 15 African American arrests—were for less than an ounce of marijuana, an offense that cops can’t exclude someone for.
That explanation, though, leads to an even larger question, one Schmautz says he can’t answer yet: If only 238 African Americans were arrested for excludable offenses, why were a whopping 270 African Americans excluded?
“We’d have to go back and look at the data to find out why more African Americans appear to be getting excluded than were arrested for drug offenses,” Schmautz says. “I cannot tell you if it is the same people being excluded multiple times or if it is more people being excluded than arrested, without looking at the data [more thoroughly].”
The discrepancies are only the latest in a string of troubles for the exclusion zones. Previous versions of the Drug-Free Zones—in which cops could issue a 90-day exclusion based on mere suspicion of drug activity—have been ruled illegal; in November 2003, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Michael Marcus ruled that "mere suspicion" wasn't enough to sidestep legal due process. Former Mayor Vera Katz and city council responded by changing the rules so that officers would have to have a "preponderance of evidence" before issuing an exclusion.
In the years since, the exclusion ordinance has grown increasingly complicated due to its inherent legal questions.
"It's one of the most complicated laws on the books in Portland, but it effects such a small population," says public defender Chris O'Connor. "In theory, it'd be simple, but since they have to deal with annoying things like the US Constitution, the Oregon Constitution, and due process, it gets a little more complicated."
Last March, faced with the expiration of the Drug-Free Zones, Mayor Tom Potter and the current council set out to reform the zones in order to protect the constitutional liberties of Portlanders. Part of the compromise was to require that exclusions be tied to arrests. No more "mere suspicion" or "preponderance of evidence"—but actual arrests with actual court appearances. The other part of the compromise: the creation of an oversight committee to look at how exclusions are being used by cops and how the system can be improved.
But that committee, which was supposed to have been formed last March, didn't start working until last month. And now, with the exclusion zones coming up for renewal again in weeks, the fate of the zones is unclear.
For some in the community, the seeming racial discrepancies in the use of exclusions are amplified by the long delay in creating the oversight committee.
"This is why the community has been so frustrated with the mayor's office for not putting in the oversight committee for Drug-Free Zones," says Jo Ann Bowman, executive director of Oregon Action and co-chair of the city's Racial Profiling Committee. "Clearly it just reinforces what we already know takes place—African Americans are targeted by the police. Here is a really blatant example."
"I wish I could say I was shocked, but ever since they started the exclusion zones, there has been consistent over-representation of African Americans," added Bowman. "Officers may say, we are working in a high-crime area, but the question is, are officers making these high-crime areas because of their actions in those communities?"
In response to the lack of an oversight committee, State Representative Chip Shields (D-Portland) has introduced Senate Bill 642, which would go one step further than Potter's compromise by requiring that exclusions be based on convictions rather than arrests.
"What this bill says is that if we're going to exclude someone from a part of the city, they should have their day in court and be convicted," Shields says. "Most of the time the cops get it right. But sometimes they don't, and that's why we need due process protections."
The mayor's office has publicly stayed quiet about Shields' bill; behind the scenes, however, they've tried to convince the city commissioners to oppose it. Commissioner Erik Sten is considering another solution: Alleged offenders would have to have multiple previous drug convictions before an officer could issue an exclusion.
"I'm open to all these ideas," says Shields. "We need to have a discussion at the state level about whether people can be excluded from parts of a city based just on probable cause."