Nearly two years ago, city council voted to withdraw Portland police officers from the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). It was a bold move—Portland was the first city in the country to go through with such a decision, facing scorn and criticism from national media (and one council member, Dan Saltzman) in the process.
A little more than six months into Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioner Sam Adams' terms, it signaled the onset of a new, post-Vera Katz era, one in which a majority of city council could be counted on to protect civil liberties. Coming a couple years after a failed attempt to pass an anti-war resolution (due to the pervasive influence of the Portland Business Alliance), the vote was refreshing—and reassuring.
Alas, in the 22 months since—and especially in the last two months—Portland's city council has proven that it is just as prone as the rest of the country to embrace policies that trade civil liberties for superficial and false perceptions of safety.
Last month, council extended the Drug- and Prostitution-Free Zones (DFZs) ordinance, despite Potter's failure to deliver on his promise of an oversight committee, and despite some startling evidence that the policy disproportionately targets African Americans. Then, last week, council voted 3-1 to establish a new sit-lie law, which bans sitting or lying on sidewalks downtown.
Both laws are stunning examples of how easy it is for elected officials to sell out civil liberties in order to advance a perception of "safety" and "cleanliness." Neither law does anything to address the root causes of crime or homelessness, nor do they—in reality—make the city any safer. The DFZs don't end crack dealing; they merely shift it to other parts of town. And the sit-lie law? You'd have to be Travis Bickle to believe that downtown's homeless population poses a safety hazard, or even a traffic hazard.
Instead, both are intended to give residents and tourists (and customers at PBA members' businesses) the phony idea that Portland is devoid of the grittiness that is inseparable from urban living. That city council has so willingly bought into this unbalanced and constitutionally dangerous transaction is disappointing, especially considering the landmark JTTF vote.
Then again, maybe the whole JTTF thing was never about civil liberties. Maybe it was just about power. The main reason for Potter's opposition to the partnership was that the FBI refused to give him top security clearance.
Meanwhile, the mayor and council continue to let downtown business leaders write public safety policy. Funny, I don't feel any safer.