Potter's Record, Reconsidered
Mayoral Candidate Tom Potter has positioned himself as a progressive with a vision. The truth is under his watch the number of paramilitarized police added to the force rose almost 3000% as patrol officers declined. Additionally police spied on demonstrators, and had a record number of killings...
Correcting Potter's Record
Former Portland Police Bureau Chief Tom Potter has cast himself as a populist. He has spoken about his vision for "Community Policing" and how it was lost in recent years to a more militarized model.
The truth is somewhat different. Potter while giving lip service to putting more cops on the street, gave Portland (and much of the Nation) a more militarized model of the police. Under his direction the paramilitary branch of the Portland Police Bureau grew by almost as much as 3000%, and the number of patrol officers shrank in proportion to the population of Portland. Shootings by police were epidemic, and were characterized by unusually large discharges of bullets - the FBI statistics at the time put us at the third highest in the nation. In addition to this, there was a blatant disregard for the rights of protest. In addition to demonstrations marked by liberal use of sweeps and pepper spray, there were scandals involving illegal infiltration and surveillance of legal peaceful protesters.
More Militarized Cops, Less Cops on Patrol
Part of the actual record is found in the February 1994 City Auditor's report. Potter's "Community Policing" was praised for adding 143 officers in 4 ½ years. The reality is that the largest group of these officers were paramilitary in function. This report shows that under Potter's "Community Policing," the Tactical Operations Division grew from 2 officers in June of 1989 to 56 in January of 1994. That's an increase of 2800% over 4 1/2 years. Tactical Operations, is the division that includes the paramilitary SERT team. These are the cops that carry military style weapons, knock down peoples' doors and seize their property.
At the same time, the number of cops on the beat actually fell in relation to the population. While there were 440 patrol officers in June of 1989 and 481 in January of 1994, the population of Portland grew from 437,319 to 493,825, thus the ratio of precinct patrol officers to Portland's population dropped slightly. Moreover at about this same time the number of calls handled by patrol officers dropped from 625 officers in 1988 to 481 in 1993. This wasn't because there were more officers, it was because there was now a Telephone Response Unit (TRU) which handled complaints by phone with no officer follow-up. During this period the amount of calls handled by TRU rose from 43,594 in 1987 to 97,034 in 1993, an increase of 123%
That there was connection between this unit and Potter's vision of "Community Policing" is shown by the promotions that took place in the PPB's ranks under Potter. Every person who served as Lieutenant in Charge of Community Policing, was then promoted to Captain in Charge of Tactical Operations. This includes Mark Parisi and Greg Clark. What is the connection here?
Taking Property to Pay for More Cops
To fulfill Potter's vision of Community Policing required more cops. How were the cops paid for? Both locally, the newer officers were paid for through asset forfeiture. In plain English, asset forfeiture is property seized by the police. They confiscate the property, and sell it. Hence these police have an incentive to confiscate property to keep themselves funded.
It was also under Potter (and then Moose) that we saw the rise of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and Gang Resistance Education And Training (GREAT) Programs. Both are now famous for going into schools speaking to kids. The DARE or GREAT Officer tells the kids how gang members and drug users dress, the music they listen to, the drugs they take, the effects of each of these drugs and how they're procured, and the crimes other kids commit to get these drugs. Inevitably, and not surprisingly, these kids have more run ins with the law, poorer academic performance and a higher drop out rate. (see footnote i.)
The relationship between Community Policing and Tactical Operations becomes clearer. The Community policing officers identify crime, or at least crime involving property which may be confiscated. The Tactical Operations Division then takes that information and takes the property and is able to pay for more cops.
This relationship was exported nationally in the federal COPS program. The COPS program aimed to bring 100,000 new cops on the street. Part of Clintons 1994 Crime Bill, this program provided seed money to place these officers in forces for a few years, then have them paid for through asset forfeiture. This was based on much of Potter's work in Community Policing and administered in part by Potter. The results of this are shown in the studies of Professor Peter Kraska. Kraska notes that by 1998 70% of those towns in the U.S. with populations under 50,000 had paramilitary SWAT, or SERT units, similar in training and weaponry to the paramilitary forces used by our own military. In those towns with populations over 50,000, the numbers jumped to 90%.
More Cops, Less Training, More Bad Shootings
In understanding the numbers of cops on our forces, and what passes for normal, it is necessary to understand that a huge hiring surge took place in the late 1960s, early 1970's to deal with the civil unrest of that era. Rather than taking those numbers as exceptional numbers, for an exceptional period of time, those numbers became the benchmark. Anytime the numbers fell below these inflated figures, it was seen as a depletion of strength.
Potter, as demonstrated above, while he did not oversee a tremendous growth in the number of patrol officers emblematic of the rhetoric of "Community Policing" did oversee a tremendous growth in the number of officers under his command. This period of growth took place at a time when the large numbers of officers hired in the late 1960's and 1970s were retiring. The result was that with replacement officers and those boosting the numbers, relatively newer recruits dominated the force.
One of the direct results of all these new hires seems to have been the astounding number of questionable shootings that took place These include a young child taken hostage named Nathan Thomas who was shot by police, to someone named Fred Gundmanson helping neighbors move and allegedly holding a toy gun, to Michael Renfro, who was shot when police broke into his home while he was holding a t.v. remote, to a fellow named Eugene Gratton who while fleeing through a residential neighborhood was fired upon an astounding 28 times. At one point under Potter the statistics compiled by the FBI placed the Portland Police as the third deadliest in the country.
While Potter's leadership may not have been the direct cause of every one of these shootings, there seems to be a strong correlation. To accommodate the additional new hires, the level of hire had gone down. Because of volume of the new hires, there were less experienced officers available to give on the spot supervision to the newer recruits. The standard sidearm, a six shooter, had been replaced with a semi-automatic that held 17 to 30 rounds. The old training directive of "fire two shots and evaluate" was replaced by "fire until the threat no longer exists" which in many cases meant empty the entire clip. All these seem to have contributed to the number of shootings seen in Portland, and the astoundingly high number of bullets fired at most of these.
Spying on Activists
While Potter is now trumpeted as a champion of civil rights some extremely Ashcroftian doings took place under his watch.
Some of these were revealed by the successful civil suit brought by activist Douglas Squirrel. The suit revealed police illegally attending and monitoring meetings and rallies of numerous antiwar groups, none of them with any history of violence.
More damning and far reaching was the activity involving the Fact Finding Division of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) illegally gathering the names of approximately twenty thousand (20,000) individuals engaged in lawful political activity. The facts indicate the ADL traded these names with numerous law enforcement agencies as well the governments of Israel and South Africa. While legal action on this was eventually taken out of San Francisco, available evidence indicated that a substantial portion, by some accounts a majority of these records, had passed through the PPB's Criminal Intelligence Division.
While Potter cannot be indisputably linked as having knowledge of the full scale of these events surrounding the ADL's illegal acquisition and trading of names, several things are worth noting. One is that this scandal first broke on a front page article of the San Francisco Examiner on March 9, 1993; Potter tendered his resignation March 10, 2003, the next day, citing no specific reasons. Potter had just returned from a three day trip to FBI Headquarters in Quantico Virginia where he'd been accompanied by FBI Special Agent in Charge of Portland, Robin Montgomery, and Black United Front Leader Richard Brown. (Footnote ii.) Potter himself was also honored in a dinner shortly afterwards by the ADL.
While the record of Chief Kroeker raises many red flags, former Chief Potter is less than forthright in blaming Kroeker for the militarization of Portland's Police. Substantial inroads in this militarization were made by Potter himself. These inroads were made through deliberate choices of allocation and training. Indeed, the very concept of "Community Policing" as promoted by Potter, seems to have been little more than an intelligence gathering arm of these more militarized police. It was on Potter's watch that an astronomical number of police shootings took place, most of them characterized by an extraordinarily large number of bullets fired. And it was on Tom Potter's watch that substantial incursions were made into the rights of many lawful protesters. Taken together these represent someone who is far less than a populist and likely a danger in an era of John Ashcroft.
i This can be confirmed by the study of DARE done in Austin, as well as others. It is also worth noting that a representative of the police union shared his observations at an October 24, 1994 Chief's Forum: "I want you to think twice about making the gang unit bigger and bigger because what you seem to be doing, looking at the stats here, is making the problem bigger and bigger... .I want you to understand that these special units have a tendency to create a problem. Portlandian, Winter 1994, Vol 1, Number 3, p.24
ii Montgomery had been one of the agents involved in the apprehension of AIM activist Leonard Peltier, and was later to play a role in the siege of Randy Weaver in Idaho. Montgomery left Portland to head up the FBI's Tactical Unit. Brown had earned the ire of some in Portland by asking on multiple occasions for the National Guard to be brought into Northeast Portland to deal with the gang problem. Brown went on to participate in all stages of picking Potter's successor, Charles Moose. One of the first actions to take place after Moose was sworn in was a August 21, 1993 "drug" raid involving a National Guard M-113 Armored Personnel Carrier, a National Guard Bell Ranger Helicopter, members of the PPB SERT Team, the OSP SWAT Team, and some of the same less lethal weapons used in the famous May Day debacle. Though initially proclaimed a success by the police, a press release prepared by Public Information Officer Derrick Foxworth off handedly acknowledged that the only drugs found were a single marijuana cigarette, and that the target of the raid had left the neighborhood several weeks ago. At least one successful civil suit was brought as a result of this action.
About the Author:
Paul Richmond resided in Portland from 1990-1998 and was active covering the administration of Chief Tom Potter. He was a regular contributor to PDXS, the Portland Free Press, and Editor of the Portlandian. In addition to this he was host and or producer of the shows Abuse of Power, Secret Government Seminar and Water Forum. He is currently an attorney in practice in Seattle, authored the report Waging War on Dissent, and consulted on the documentary Urban Warrior. He may be reached at email@example.com.
A version of this article will be appearing in the Portland Alliance.
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