New numbers show Portland's police are pointing their guns at African Americans more often than they are at the city's white residents, and that per capita, African Americans are five times more likely to have force used against them in a police encounter than whites.
Of 87,004 arrests made citywide between September 2004 and December 2006, 23,351—or 27 percent—of suspects were African American, though they make up seven percent of Portland's population, according to the 2000 census. Meanwhile, 29 percent of the cops' 9,140 use-of-force incidents over the same period involved African Americans, according to numbers Chief Rosie Sizer gave to the city's Racial Profiling Committee on December 20.
Over the same period, 51,529 white people were arrested citywide, accounting for 59 percent of total arrests; 75 percent of Portland's population is white. Force, however, was used against white people in just 56 percent—or 5,125—of all use-of-force incidents.
African Americans were also more likely than whites to have a gun pointed at them instead of a Taser, in a use-of-force incident: They faced firearms 1,039 times over the period—or 30 percent of all gun encounters—and faced Tasers 421 times, or 28 percent of all Taser encounters. Meanwhile, whites faced guns 1,942 times, in 55 percent of gun encounters, and Tasers 881 times, in 59 percent of such encounters.
"Deadly force is the most serious force an officer can use," says Copwatch activist Dan Handelman. "And it appears, for whatever reason, officers feel more threatened by African American suspects than they do by white suspects."
Hispanics, too, had guns pointed at them more often than Tasers—accounting for 11 percent and eight percent of such encounters, respectively. Hispanics are seven percent of Portland's population.
The statistics are important because the Portland Police Bureau's representatives have often tried to justify higher rates of traffic stops, person searches, and drug-free zone exclusions of African Americans by saying that statistically in Portland, black people commit more crimes. Based on that logic, the new stats suggest cops may feel that black criminals are more frightening and violent, too.
Handelman is concerned that a report on use of force released last spring by the Independent Police Review (IPR) chose not to include data on race for this reason.
"I just hope the IPR and the police bureau didn't keep hold of this data for so long because the numbers are so skewed," he says.
IPR Director Leslie Stevens and City Auditor Gary Blackmer declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Police Chief Rosie Sizer was slated to present a report to council on Wednesday, January 16, regarding the progress of the mayor's Racial Profiling Committee since it first convened a year ago. She was also unavailable for comment on Tuesday.
"I haven't looked at this latest round of statistics," says Jo Ann Bowman of Oregon Action, who is due to co-present to council along with Sizer this week. "But I'm going to assume they are like every other set of statistics collected by the police bureau in that people of color are over-represented.
"But if we take the police at their word," she continues, "then we have to look not just at these numbers but behind them, into what they might mean."
On that front, Bowman says the committee is making progress. "I'd say we're getting to the place we can have conversations about specific incidents without it being 'all cops are racist' or 'the community doesn't know what's going on.'"