APPLAUSE RANG OUT during last Friday's gang task force meeting, right after Commander Kevin Modica, leader of the region's transit cops, offered some of the last words in a conversation on police tactics and racial tensions spilling from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
"We're not Ferguson, Missouri," Modica said to the cops, city officials, neighbors, and justice advocates gathered for the semiweekly meeting inside the Portland Police Bureau's North Precinct. "We've never been Ferguson, Missouri."
It's not an unfair point, for a couple of reasons—none bigger than Portland's never been a majority black city, like Ferguson, with a majority white police force. Portland also has shied away from importing the kind of surplus military gear on display in the nightly gassing of peaceful protesters.
And our police bureau has done better than most when it comes to owning racial bias—admitting that racism, overt or not, may play a role in disparities, and also training command staff and sergeants on racial bias.
But not everyone agrees it's so clear-cut—especially leaders in the city's African American and police accountability communities. It was only 1981 when two white cops were caught leaving dead opossums outside a black-owned restaurant.
"We're not Ferguson?" former State Representative Jo Ann Hardesty asked, incredulously. "Yes we are."
And then she explained.
Night after night in Ferguson, protesters have been defying tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, and curfew orders. That's partly because a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in dubious circumstances—seemingly with impunity and little promise of discipline.
But it's also because of years of simmering indignities: feeling profiled, being disproportionately targeted for stops and searches, getting the sense that the cops patrolling Ferguson's neighborhoods felt more like occupiers than public servants. A lot of that should sound familiar.
"Can we say Aaron Campbell?" Hardesty said, naming some of the unarmed people of color or with mental illness who've been killed by Portland police—also with no meaningful discipline. "Can we say Jose Mejia Poot? Can we say James Chasse? Can we say Kendra James?"
"Ferguson and Portland have a lot in common. We both have systems that don't hold police accountable."
Hardesty was talking to me a few hours before the city's Office of Youth Violence Prevention held a community meeting meant partly as a plea for help after a weekend of violence believed to be gang-related. She found that call ironic in light of the harsh way, she and others believe, Portland's gang cops do business in black neighborhoods.
Like in Ferguson, African Americans walking and driving in Portland are disproportionately stopped and searched for contraband. And also like in Ferguson, they are less likely than whites to have actual contraband.
Notably, according to a recent report examining data from 2011, those disparities were most pronounced in stops by gang officers—and least in stops by traffic cops.
"The more discretion police have," Hardesty says, "the more exacerbated racial profiling becomes.... If the police hadn't intimidated and abused the same community members they now want help from, the community would be much more open to helping."
She allows that the bias lessons are encouraging—except she's not been able to see what's actually being taught. And never mind the wrinkle that street cops have yet to go through the program.
Hardesty says she wants to train schoolchildren in Portland how to stay unharmed in police encounters. She also wants the rest of Portland to pay attention. And speak up.
"When regular people stop and bear witness," she says, "it stops."
Eventually. Not yet in Ferguson, or here. But eventually.