"I know people are exasperated because you've been working on this for decades," said City Commissioner Amanda Fritz to an audience of 40 at a Northeast Portland church last weekend. "But with your continued participation—despite having been through this over and over again—this might just be the round where you get what you want."
Fritz was addressing a skeptical, predominantly African American audience on Saturday, February 21, at a meeting organized by Oregon Action to discuss racial profiling by Portland's police. The meeting took place at the end of a week in which Police Chief Rosie Sizer released the police bureau's plan to address the issue—a plan that's over two years late.
Originally promised by Sizer no later than January 2007, the new plan contains big wins for racial justice advocates. For example: The police bureau is now aiming to increase the number of minority and female officers hired in 2009 by 10 percent. Also, officers will be required to give out business cards whenever they stop a driver or pedestrian—a measure that aims to reduce allegations of harassment. In addition, Sizer wants her officers to continue building better relationships with the people they serve, through a new subgroup of the city's human relations committee.
This subcommittee had its second meeting on Wednesday, February 18, to finalize its mission statement and discuss the recruitment of new members. Also last week, the city's Independent Police Review released a report on "bias-based policing" written by its Citizen Review Committee (CRC), which pushed the police bureau to improve its "customer service ethic" in minority communities.
Yet despite the flurry of city attention given to racial profiling last week, many of those present at Fritz's community meeting felt the city has been playing a "shell game" on the issue since the election of a new council last November.
"I think many of us are tired of the constant rhetoric, and the constant creation of committees," said one community member, who preferred to remain anonymous.
"My concern now is that there seems to be a fragmentation of the effort," said Jo Ann Bowman, executive director of Oregon Action, after hearing Fritz speak. "You've got one commissioner [Fritz] who's in charge of human relations, another commissioner in charge of the police bureau [Dan Saltzman], and then the police chief, and then the mayor. You've got a lot of powers-that-be that have a stake in this, but there's no one forum that shapes the direction of that effort."
Bowman served on former Mayor Tom Potter's racial profiling committee from January 2007 until it was disbanded, late last year. She feels that without the committee to push the effort forward, there isn't enough pressure on city council to take responsibility for solving the problem.
Or as Fritz put it at the community meeting: "I'm not in charge of the police bureau, I'm in charge of the office of human relations.
"We have a five-member council, which ultimately means it's difficult to know who's responsible for what," she continued.
Bowman is also disappointed that Sizer's plan continues to resist identifying individual officers—even though anecdotal evidence suggests that some bad apple officers may be contributing more to the problem of racial profiling than most of their coworkers.
"A reviewer noted that five of the 30 cases he reviewed named the same officer," says the CRC report on the handling of complaints about bias-based policing.
There were no representatives of the police bureau present at the meeting, and Chief Sizer declined comment for this article.
Perhaps most frustrating of all for community members like Veronica Clark and Jarrod Akles, who were at the meeting with Fritz, is that despite the city's efforts they continue to experience profiling. Akles, who is African American, and Clark, who is white, told the audience they were profiled together by a cop at a MAX stop on February 3. The officer allegedly detained the pair without probable cause for several minutes, saying it looked like they were carrying out a "drug transaction."
"I was digging in my briefcase to give [Clark] some money and her homework," said Akles. "When he realized we had done nothing wrong, the officer should have given us his card and moved on, but he kept trying to get an emotional reaction from me, to get me to do something criminal so that he could justify the stop."
A week earlier, Akles told the Mercury, he was stopped by another officer in East Portland and given a ticket for jaywalking. The officer allegedly told him that because he was wearing a red jacket, he "fit the profile for the neighborhood."