Thirty minutes after Katelin Durnal and her brother Gregory left the Portland Pride parade on Sunday, June 17, a stranger punched Gregory in the face and called him a “faggot.”
The siblings had been walking along Northwest 21st Avenue, accompanied by Gregory’s girlfriend and their cousin, when the man approached the group and yelled homophobic slurs at Gregory before hitting him. Durnal—who was wearing a rainbow crown for the parade—fought to push the man, later identified as Justin Watling, off her brother.
“Have a gay day!” Durnal recalls Watling yelling as he fled the scene. Durnal then called 911 to report a hate crime.
When Portland police officers showed up and arrested Watling for assault, they told Durnal he had a record of mental illness and that it would be difficult to pursue hate crime charges—because her brother isn’t gay.
“They asked all of us what our sexual orientations were,” says Durnal. “They said they wouldn’t pursue the case as a hate crime unless anyone would go on the record as homosexual.”
This didn’t sit well with Durnal—so she called the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office to follow up. They scheduled her and her brother to testify against Watling before a grand jury later that week. The grand jury indicted Watling for second-degree “Intimidation”—the terminology used in Oregon’s hate crime law—along with one count of menacing and two counts of assault.
Had she not made that call, Durnal believes Watling’s assault wouldn’t have been investigated as a hate crime.
“I’m still really frustrated by the way the police handled all of this,” Durnal says.
She’s not alone. As Portland sees an uptick in reported hate crimes since Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House, a number of Portlanders have expressed disappointment with the Portland Police Bureau’s response to hate crimes.
Zakir Khan, chair of the Oregon chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Oregon), says his office hears reports weekly from Muslims who have felt victimized because of their religion or skin color. But getting the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to act on those reports, he says, is a challenge.
“We’re just not taken seriously by PPB,” Khan says. He’s been pushing PPB to strengthen the city’s hate crime policy since May 2017, when Jeremy Christian hurled anti-Muslim slurs at two women on a MAX train and then fatally stabbed two men who tried to defend them. While Khan has had some success in advancing policies with the Oregon Attorney General’s office and Oregon’s members of Congress, he’s felt largely ignored by Mayor Ted Wheeler, whose office directly oversees the PPB.
“Presence is one thing, and action is another,” says Khan, noting Wheeler’s appearances at events that have supported the Muslim community. “It’s easy to show up to events. It’s harder to implement policies that actually empower communities.”
Three days after the 2017 MAX stabbing, a woman told Khan she had been harassed by a man in a car who told her to take off her hijab and “go back to your fucking country.” After reporting the altercation to the police, she said officers told her it would be reported as a road rage incident rather than a hate crime.
Only after CAIR called on the City of Portland to conduct a more thorough investigation was her harasser indicted on hate crime charges.
“There’s a real, categorical problem with regards to [PPB] not even being able to properly identify hate crimes,” Khan says. “It seems they fundamentally don’t understand the hate crime laws.”
He worries this blind spot could deter victims from reporting hate crimes in the first place.
Local law enforcement, however, says it’s Oregon law that restricts their ability to fully investigate alleged hate crimes.
The intimidation law that is used to prosecute hate crimes in Oregon applies to people who cause “substantial inconvenience to another because of the person’s perception of the other’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or national origin.”
According to PPB Bias Crime Detective Jeff Sharp, it’s the intimidation law’s specific phrasing that hinders his work.
“It’s not framed around the perception of the victim, but the perception of the suspect,” says Sharp. “That means we have to be able to prove what a person’s perception is.”
The easiest way to detect someone’s perception is through an interview with the suspect or a witness, says Sharp. Even then, he says, it’s hard to be certain. Individuals suspected of hate crimes often have histories of mental illness, which officers have to factor into their charges.
Another problem with the current law: Suspects acting alone will never be indicted on first-degree charges. A first-degree intimidation charge only applies when “two or more persons [are] acting together,” according to the Oregon law. While someone convicted of a first-degree charge (a Class C felony) faces up to five years in prison and a $125,000 fine, those guilty of a second-degree conviction (a Class A misdemeanor) won’t see more than a year behind bars and won’t be fined more than $6,250.
Sharp says Oregon’s “outdated” intimidation law, enacted in the 1980s, was likely a response to a rise in organized skinhead attacks, which often involved more than one perpetrator assaulting minorities in the state.
But almost 40 years later, Portland’s hate crime victims are rarely aware of the complexities and restrictions embedded into Oregon law that can keep their cases from moving forward.
“It’s a real uphill battle,” says Randy Blazak, a Portland State University sociology professor who chairs the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes. “Sometimes officers can clearly identify the motive; other times, it’s far less clear. The process is inherently unsatisfying to the victims.”
In lieu of a legislative overhaul to the state statute, Blazak says victims like Durnal and her brother need a court-appointed hate crime advocate to explain the process and help them seek some type of justice. He likens the role to one an advocate for victims of rape or sexual abuse plays in a criminal investigation.
Without a legal guide, Blazak adds, it’s easy for victims to think police are working against them. Durnal has certainly adopted that mindset.
“I’m disillusioned by the Portland police now,” she says. “It’ll be hard to trust them in the future.”