Wednesday, May 24, 2017

THE POLITICS OF POLICING: WHY CAN'T PORTLAND GET IT RIGHT?

The Portland Police Bureau, Oregon, has limped through what seems like a slow-motion train wreck over the past few years. The Bureau was the subject of a US Department of Justice investigation primarily about use of force in dealing with people experiencing mental illness, and also in dealing with minority members of the community; this resulted in a Settlement Agreement still being implemented (with great difficulty within a citizen oversight Board). A newly appointed Chief of Police from within the Bureau had to resign after accidentally shooting a friend while hunting and allegedly lying about it during the subsequent investigation of the incident. The former mayor negotiated a new contract with the Police Association (union) shortly before the end of his term that generated controversy among some community activists. Community activists held increasingly vocal and violent demonstrations against the Mayor and Police Bureau after police cracked down on demonstrators who were taking over streets and freeways, blocking mass transit, and anarchists destroying and vandalizing public and private property. The newly appointed interim Chief was put on leave during an investigation related to his presence at a training; he was eventually cleared.
And now this: a job listing for Chief of Police was posted by the City this month, and it has sparked controversy within the Bureau as well as the community. I have studied the job listing, as well as the statement issued by the President of the Police Association and a reply by the Mayor (the Mayor oversees the Police Bureau). I have to say that I agree with the opinion that the job listing is amazingly insensitive to the hard work done by rank-and-file officers in the Bureau, and conveys the impression that the major issue in the City of Portland regarding police work is relationships with "communities of color."

Here is the first paragraph of the job listing:

The City of Portland is seeking a highly qualified and transformative Police Chief to lead the Portland Police Bureau. The Portland Police Chief serves as the Chief of the largest law enforcement agency in the State of Oregon. This individual reports to the Mayor and is responsible for directing and leading all aspects of bureau operations. The State of Oregon and its largest city, Portland, share a history of legally sanctioned systemic racism with legally enforced exclusionary practises. Given this history, the successful candidate must demonstrate the capacity and commitment to expand on existing strategies to improve relationships with and service provision to Portland's communities of color, ensuring that equity is a bedrock of policing in Portland.

For someone not familiar with Portland, this leading paragraph certainly conveys the message that systemic racism is the main problem with the Portland Police Bureau, even today. This is not true. It is true that Oregon and Portland have shameful histories of racial policies and actions; however, it is also true that the State, City and Police Bureau have been addressing these problems for many years, and much progress has been made. Yes, there is much work to be done to improve relationships between police and citizens, especially marginalized communities.In fact, later in the job announcement, this statement appears:

Highly skilled in facilitating, negotiating and building consensus and trust among diverse customers and stakeholders with competing and differing needs.
In other words, Portland is a community with a diversity of people ("customers") who the police interact with and serve.

The Portland Police Association President issued a statement responding to this job announcement.
Understandably, the verbiage and the tenor of the job posting left many in the rank and file angry and confused, as the clear implication from the posting is that the Police Bureau and its members have supported a racist culture in the City.

The union statement went on to list the many recent positive accomplishments of the Bureau. It also pointed out that the job announcement had nothing positive to say about the hard-working and dedicated officers of the Bureau.

I have worked with the Portland Police Bureau on neighborhood projects, and was involved for over a year in the public part of the Settlement Agreement. Although I am not a member of the Bureau, I feel that the job announcement for Chief of Police is an insult to the many good people of the Bureau.
I don't understand this. Is this a huge human resources blunder by the City of Portland? Is this an example of political correctness gone wild? Or is this, for some reason, an intentional insult?
Portland, Oregon is not la-la-land; we have real problems that need to be addressed, including, but not exclusively, issues of systemic racism. Our Police Bureau is seriously under-staffed and consistently criticized by certain elements of the community. The Bureau has been plagued by internal problems and incidents, and the Mayor has initiated a nation-wide search for a new Chief of Police. Unfortunately, the job announcement for Chief doesn't help matters.
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