IT'S FUNNY. Almost as quickly as it bubbled forth, the shock and the joy felt by some police accountability advocates this month—after the US Department of Justice announced a long-sought, landmark probe into how Portland cops wield their fists, Tasers, and guns—wilted into vague disappointment.
And that's partly because the investigation, according to what the feds explained in a letter sent to Mayor Sam Adams' office June 8, will focus primarily on officers' interactions with the mentally ill.
Of course, that's hardly a trifling issue. Portland cops since January 2010 have shot dead six men gripped by some kind of mental illness, injured another, and fired at one more. And the fact that it's the feds who have had to step in and make some noise should rightly be seen as an indictment of our political leaders and their lack of will to tackle the issue themselves.
But all the same, the tight focus of the feds' probe—announced more than a year after Reverend Jesse Jackson swept into town following the death of Aaron Campbell and after Adams and then-Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman stood together and demanded a federal review—wasn't precisely what advocates had in mind.
It came down to Jo Ann Bowman, a former state lawmaker and a member of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, to distill the unease during this month's big press conference.
"How do we make sure race isn't lost in this?" she bluntly asked Tom Perez, the assistant attorney general who runs the justice department's civil rights division. Perez flew in to stand with US Attorney for Oregon Dwight Holton, Mayor Sam Adams, and a civvies-clad Police Chief Mike Reese.
The question was heavy. Portland's black community has traditionally been the moral heart of the city's police accountability movement. Without its pressure, Adams and Saltzman might not have stood together last February.
Perez's answer was limp. "We will listen to all corners of the community," he offered.
Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman said they should've already been listening. He was one of the advocates they met with when deciding whether to launch a civil rights probe. And he said he and others urged them to also think about race.
Handelman notes that although African Americans account for only six percent of Portland's population, they make up nearly a fourth of all people shot at by cops, fatally or not, since January 2000. That, too, is hardly a trifling issue.
"They didn't even mention it," Handelman said. "I found that insulting."
The inquiry, which may not produce any severe sanctions, will take months. That's plenty of time to keep talking. Provided the feds really mean it when they say they'll still be listening.