Hall Monitor is a regular column on issues related to Portland City Hall and its influence on the community it serves. It's been on hiatus since the Mercury halted its print publication in March. Now, it's back!
For nearly three weeks, Portlanders have spent their evenings in the streets demanding accountability and action in the face of ongoing police brutality against Black Americans.
City leaders have called these protests inspirational, and important, and moving—a call to action. But when it actually came time to back up those sentiments with meaningful changes, they fell short.
Last week, more than 700 people signed up to testify before Portland City Council regarding the city’s proposed annual budget. The vast majority of those speakers pressed commissioners to make at least $50 million in cuts to the budget of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), with a commitment to eventually entirely defund and dismantle the police force. Others called for immediate abolition.
No one on City Council came close to answering the call.
Instead, city commissioners leaned on progressive buzzwords as they tried—and failed—to convince the public that meager budget cuts and incremental police reforms were an appropriate response.
“We reshaped this budget to respond to the calls that we heard,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler during the Thursday budget meeting, held virtually. “Our job as elected leaders is to listen, to understand, and to respond with urgency to the needs of our community.”
“You have given us a mandate to make radical changes happen,” added Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a longtime advocate for police reform.
Yet the proposed budget for the PPB that is expected to be approved Wednesday is only 3 percent smaller than the previous year’s budget. The proposed cuts related to reform add up to just $15 million of a proposed total police budget of $244.6 million.
Even Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s ill-fated attempt to further reduce the PPB budget by eliminating vacant police positions—saving an additional $4.6 million—would have barely moved the needle.
While it’s remarkable that all four commissioners agreed to defund three PPB units that have come to be widely known for targeting people of color, their proposed budget enables Portland’s police bureau to continue operating largely as it has in the past.
“None of them are meeting this moment,” said Lisa Bates, an urban studies professor at Portland State University and one of the founding members of the Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF). In early June, PAALF and Unite Oregon partnered to create a list of PPB budget recommendations—including a $50 million overall cut. PAALF’s document was cited by many members of the public who testified to City Council regarding the proposed budget.
“None of them are hearing or responding to the call to defund, to dismantle,” Bates told the Mercury Monday. “This is just incremental reform. We’re not interested in that."
Other cities have responded with actionable, concrete reforms: In Minneapolis, a majority of city council agreed to take immediate steps to disband its police department. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to cut the Los Angeles Police Department by 6 percent (adding up to $150 million). In Hartford, Connecticut, members of city council have proposed cutting the city’s police budget by 25 percent.
“This is just incremental reform. We’re not interested in that."— Lisa Bates, PSU urban studies professor and founding member of PAALF
Portland’s proposed budget includes promises for better community-led police oversight and a more transparent police training process. But these kinds of piecemeal reforms have been discussed and suggested and watered-down for so long that they have become part of the status quo.
For decades, city leaders have promised changes to how Portland’s police treat Black Portlanders. And for decades, Portlanders have watched those reforms fail.
In 1964, after a white Portland police officer shot and killed Cleotis Rhodes, a Black man, during a traffic stop, the city strengthened PPB’s use-of-force restrictions around firearms. Yet police continued to kill Black Portlanders.
In 1969, 14 Black Portlanders filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Portland, accusing its police force of systemic and racist harassment. The city responded by creating an internal affairs division, allowing officers to police themselves. Yet police continued to kill Black Portlanders.
In 1975, after four Black men were killed by officers over the course of five months, the city created an affirmative action program to hire more African American officers. Yet police continued to kill Black Portlanders.
In 1982, after a group of Portland Police officers dumped dead opossums on the doorstep of a prominent Black-owned business, the city created a community board to oversee the internal affairs division. Yet police continued to kill Black Portlanders.
In 1990, five years after officers used a “sleeper hold” to kill Tony Stevenson, a Black security guard, the city created a “Community Policing Division” to improve police relationships with minority communities. Yet police continued to kill Black Portlanders.
In 2012, after Portland’s Black community called on the Department of Justice to investigate PPB’s disproportionate use of force against Black Portlanders, the city accepted a settlement agreement with the federal government, vowing to undertake a series of detailed reforms.
Yet Black Portlanders are still dying at the hands of the police. Twenty-five percent of all people who have been killed by PPB officers in the past decade have been Black. Black Portlanders make up just 6 percent of the city’s population.
By now, Portland leaders should know that wholesome, well-intended notions like “community policing” only further burden people of color. They should know that improved police training doesn’t matter if officers continue to carry military-grade weapons. And they should know that implicit bias training does little to change an entrenched system that was specifically built to maintain and enforce racial inequities.
“The public has given us a historic opportunity to reimagine what policing and public safety looks like in Portland,” Wheeler said on Thursday, speaking to the public through his computer.
He’s not wrong. But even while acknowledging many Portlanders’ demands—for system-wide changes that fundamentally alter how our community addresses race, poverty, homelessness, and mental health—Wheeler and the rest of Portland City Council seem hesitant to put those sentiments into action.
When rising to the occasion of this "historic opportunity," our city’s leaders would do well to look back at Portland's history—and try something new.