Sergeant Robinson, Public Information Officer, Takes Me Into the No Spin Zone
Today my girlfriend and I wandered downtown from across the river and checked out the Arissa gathering at the Square that lingered after the march. I did not catch any of the march and it was by now about 3:30pm, but was intrigued by the predictably large police presence and the group assembled to decry their latest shooting. I figured I'd see if I could chat up the cops and see if anything interesting came of it.
First, I approached a lietenent in black fatigues and asked him to explain the scene to me. The first thing he said was that he thought the whole thing was a big waste of our tax dollars. He basically stated that he'd rather be enjoying the sunny day and since he was a lieutenant, he was not eligible for overtime. When I asked if he thought the large police presence was warranted, he gestured to the crowd and said no, but that since several of the people gathered were "self proclaimed anarchists" that "they may not look like much, but they have the potential..." I tried to lead him a bit, prompting, "like, violence, property damage, what?" but he was done talking to me and walked off.
Since there were so many cops around and I was curious about their thoughts on being the cause of the protest they had been assigned to oversee, I just sidled up to another group of them and started asking more questions. This interaction was shorter and more guarded. I think that he'd seen me talking to the other cop and was not in the mood to be harangued by me. He pointed me over to the fallen column area and told me that I could find the "PIO" (Public Information Officer, I later confirmed) in uniform over there. Sure enough, I found a uniformed, brunette woman of average height talking to two older out-of-towners who were perplexed by the spectacle. I waited patiently for her to finish conversing with them and began picking her brain. The Portland Police Bureau's Public Information Officer's name is Sergeant Sheryl Robinson. Sergeant Robinson handles all media inquiries to the PPB.
Since Sergeant Robinson was on-duty to address questions from the public, I intended use the opportunity to pose several that have been brewing for some time and get some official answers to them. To do this, I made sure that my language and demeanor was not confrontational, but up-beat and inquisitive. I was really interested to hear what Sergeant Robinson had to say and so while I sometimes wanted to, I did not interrupt her and waited for her to finish her points before moving onto other topics. As Public Relations Officers go, Robinson is a pro. She skillfully represents the official views of the Bureau and puts a human face on them.
The first of my questions pertained to the obvious: the day's protest. Since I did not make it, I asked her to fill me in on the day's events. Sergeant Robinson made a point to state that the protesters were expressing their first amendment rights and that they were within them to do so. Sergeant Robinson's account was pretty much like what I have since learned from the posts here on PDXIMC, that there was a small march that went to "talk to the Mayor." I was a bit taken aback, since I doubted that the Arissa organizers would interact with Katz. With a bit of humor, she added "... with a bullhorn outside her house." No surprise there.
Around this time another man showed up who had apparently spoke with Sergeant Robinson earlier and said that he still felt that the police presence was incongruous with the "threat." Robinson defended the large police showing, citing (as has been done many times in the last few years) the lack of a permit of the protesters and the lack of communication with the Arissa organizers. The man maintained that he still thought it was stupid and Robinson replied expertly "Well, I guess we disagree... and that's okay." The man said that he had a son over in Iraq and that he had "probably killed someone by now and he'll have to live with that for the rest of his life." He related this to the recent police shooting, although he clearly believed that the officer who shot James Perez was negligent. Sergeant Robinson did not miss her cue. She said what people often forgot was that officers who discharge their weapons, even in cases where no one is killed bear guilt from the event that at times is overwhelming. Robinson said "I don't think any officer goes out in the morning saying 'I am going to shoot someone today'"
I was not there to express my opinion to Sergeant Robinson. I sought to see if the Bureau thought that it had a problem. The grand jury decided not to indict Officer Sery. Sergeant Robinson painted the judicial system as being somewhat idyllic and in no way preferential towards officers involved in shootings. She stated that since the grand jury did not indict Sery, the inquest was essentially there to present the public with the information available about the case and had no legal teeth. She then stated that there would be a separate investigation done by, ironically enough, the FBI to assess whether the officer had "violated the victim's civil rights by, well, killing him."
While talking about the day's march and the police handling of it, I asked Sergeant Robinson if she thought that the PPB needed to "evolve." She said, "Of course, we're always changing because so much of this is new. If you look at the March 20th march, you'll see that there were zero arrests." Robinson believed that this was due to the event organizers commitment to a peaceful march complete with identifiable peacekeepers and their communication with the PPB. She said that with each march, the PPB "learns from it." The March 20th protest's "success" was held up as an example so many times that I could not help but mention my presence at both the March 20th and the August 22nd (when pResident Bush visited) protests. I brought it up because I had been in the fracas that ensued after the police failed to communicate to the crowd that the barricade, which no one had crossed, was unceremoniously moved back resulting in the pepper-spraying of a Channel 4 cameraman and a family including small children and an infant. "Nobody's perfect." Robinson said, with an apologetic tone. I do not envy her job.
I tried to convey that we who regularly gather in protest do not do so out of malice, but from a sincere feeling that something is wrong with our community, our country, our world. Robinson made it clear that these are issues that police bureaus all over the country are dealing with. So I asked to what capacity the federal government was involved in the work of the PPB. She initially stated that there was next to none, but then expanded in the context of protests to illustrate that the PPB had no jurisdiction over federal property and so Federal Protective Services often worked with the PPB when a federal building was but a stop on the protest circuit. Since I knew more about the subject than I let on, I asked about the Portland Joint Task Force on Terrorism. "Oh, yes, we have officers working on that... but that's terrorism." She conceded that Homeland Security had changed "some things" but that federal involvement was still minimal. Robinson also stated that she personally did not believe that Portland was a hotbed of Muslim terrorist cells despite the "whole Portland 7 thing." When I brought up the motions of many public officials attempts to widen the definition of terrorism Robinson deflected the subject saying that she was not there to discuss politics.
By now the interaction was less an interview and more a conversation and I let on that I had been to several protests, grown up in this city and had experiences with the police both friendly and threatening. I did not mention that in the many times that I have been pulled over by police in this city (not anymore, since I ditched the car and got a bike), I never had much fear of being shot, something I do not think people in the black community of Portland can say. However, I did relate that while riding with the Zoo Bombers, I was confronted on the road by two officers in a squad car who threatened from their bullhorns "Next time we see you we're going to run you over!!" I told Sergeant Robinson that we intended no serious mischief other than adrenalin-junky sociality and that I did not count the experience as a heartening one. Robinson's brow furrowed and she admitted that she had sometimes seen things as an officer conducted by her fellows that she thought were not "necessary" but that officers, once again, were people, too and not perfect.
The sometimes evasive and ever staunch advocate of the PPB, Sergeant Robinson, does not believe that she or the PPB intend harm against the citizens of Portland. Robinson however, is a mouthpiece, a bold face for PPB and I know from personal experience that there are meat-heads on the force that hold views similar to Rush Limbaugh's and have no hesitation in letting those views bleed into their policing.
Our community must continue to demand officers whose philosophies more closely match the mores of Portland, Oregon. I am no apologist for the foot soldiers of the Drug War. I post this merely because I thought that it was stupid that before me stood two groups obviously at odds with one and other and nothing productive had resulted from it, so far as I could tell. I figured that if the PPB media liaison, or PIO, was present to answer questions, I would hang around getting official opinions from her until she excused herself. Nothing Sergeant Robinson said to me today instilled anymore faith in the integrity of the PPB. This can only be demonstrated by actual changes in policy and more importantly, changes in attitudes and behaviors of the officers on the street.
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