IT WAS A SCENE Portlanders should be well acquainted with by now. Faced last week with evidence that an anti-gun policy disproportionately targets black Portlanders, city commissioners' hackles raised.
"Troubling," Commissioner Steve Novick called the data, which shows a staggering 83 percent of people who've been banned from three gun "hotspots" after a firearm conviction were black (a population that makes up a little more than 6 percent of the city).
"Without a really good explanation that goes beyond anecdotal concepts," Novick told an oversight committee presenting the report, "you have to reconsider a program with that rate of disparate impacts."
"We don't want to profile," cautioned Mayor Charlie Hales, who oversees the police bureau. "We want to focus and not profile."
Other commissioners piled on. The reactions were sensible. They were also a long time coming.
Reports have pointed to disparities in Portland police enforcement for years. Today there are fresh signs of hope—the bureau's leadership sought training on institutional racism last year, and has another round coming up for sergeants later this month—but it's also important to know where we stand. Here's a recap of what we've learned in years past.
• The gun zones shouldn't have been much of a surprise. The two previous reports on Portland's three-year-old "illegal firearm use hotspots" turned up growing disparities. Data from 2011 found nearly 70 percent of those excluded were black and Hispanic. The following year, 77 percent were black or Hispanic, and 100 percent of pending exclusions (they require a conviction) involved defendants who were minorities.
• African Americans and Latinos were pulled over and searched roughly twice as often as white motorists in 2010. What's more, white offenders, once searched, are actually more likely to possess contraband.
• Portland's so-called "Drug-Free Zones" were allowed to expire in 2007, after data showed officers issued exclusions to 58 percent of white people they arrested in the zones, but 100 percent of black people. New "Drug Impact Areas" (DIAs) make judges, not officers, final arbiters on exclusions. Almost 30 percent of felony cases issued under the policy involve black defendants. And roughly 55 percent of those arrested for flouting the exclusions are black, the numbers show.
Again, only six percent of the city is black.
Cops say the issue is thornier than profiling or racism. Chief Mike Reese told the Mercury that communities of color also are too often the victims of crime, which results in more cops working more diverse parts of town.
"Is that impact there for a reason?" Reese asks. "Across the board we're looking at disproportional impacts. It's not just the criminal justice system."
Police critics aren't buying it.
"We've been advocating for years that there needs to be more focused unlearning racism training," says Copwatch's Dan Handelman. "It's not good enough to have a racial diversity thing where they say, 'Can't we all get along?' It's got to go deeper than that."
And, as it happens, Handelman and others are getting their wish.
Last year, police flew in Joseph Graves—a biology professor at two North Carolina universities and author of The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America—to address its command staff on socialized racism. He'll return this month to speak to sergeants.
"The more people think that our socially defined races are natural biological categories, the more susceptible they are to prejudice, bias, and stereotyping," says Graves. "Dismantling those ideas in the police officers' minds helps them to be able to treat individuals in a more fair and equitable manner. That in turn, I would argue, leads to better policing."
Portland, which cribbed its training model from Seattle, is the first department that's asked for Graves' help. "It's my hope this will be a role model for other cities," he says.
And the training has earned cautiously positive reviews from cops. Reese called it "transformative."
"It's just as important as all the training we receive on weapons and technological aspects of police work," Detective Stacy Dunn told the police oversight Citizen Review Committee in September.
But those comments came with a word of caution from Dunn's colleague, Sergeant James Quackenbush:
"People can get triggered really quickly," he said. "[They say], 'They're coming in with this training and telling us how racist we are,' and the whole thing blows up.
"So we'll see."