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anti-racism | police / legal

Stats show driving while black still a problem

Portland police release racial profiling figures for two years: the good news is that things have not changed very much. The bad news is things haven't improved much either.
By Dave Mazza

"We want to further extend ourselves to the community particularly communities of color in order to restore and build trust," stated Portland Police Chief Rosanne M. Sizer at a May 17 press conference on the 14th floor of downtown Portland's Justice Center. "In the end, the data may prompt action but does not in and of itself provide the solutions we all seek."

With that caveat, Chief Sizer led the handful of attendees on a brisk overview of the "Stops Data Collection 2005 Statistical Report" the latest compilation of data collected last year by officers stopping motorists. Officers making traffic stops are required to enter data into a computer console in their vehicle immediately upon finishing a stop. The data collected includes the race, ethnicity, gender and age of the driver, the type of incident, reason the officer made the stop, search results and the outcome of the stop: arrest, citation or warning. In 2005, 79,419 stops were made. The Chief also distributed copies of the 2004 report based on 80,073 traffic stops.

Both the 2004 and 2005 data show African American and Latino drivers over-represented compared to their percentage of the general population. In both years, African Americans were 2.4 times as likely as whites to be stopped by the police. Latino drivers were 1.7 times as likely to be stopped.

Once stopped, African Americans were more than twice as likely to be searched than whites 27 percent compared to 12.5 percent. Latinos, making up 9 percent of all stops, were also more than twice as likely to be searched as whites 26 percent compared to 12.5 percent.

The results of those searches showed African Americans and Latinos were less likely to be in possession of drugs or weapons than their white counterparts. For African Americans, 21 percent searched were found to have drugs in their possession. Only 10 percent of Latinos were holding. Whites searched following a stop, however, were in possession of drugs 63 percent of the time.

Similar disparities were found in searches turning up weapons. Only 18 percent of African Americans searched and 14 percent of Latinos searched were in possession of weapons. A total of 63 percent of whites searched following a stop were founds with weapons.

The number of searches and the results of those searches vary little between 2004 and 2005.

Despite the fact that race was clearly an issue over the past two years, Chief Sizer offered little in the form of concrete solutions to the problem. This was in part due to a desire by the chief to have solutions come from ongoing meetings between the police and the community. Even so, Sizer offered up a few steps already in the works.

In the area of hiring and recruitment, the bureau has reportedly "retooled" its efforts with a focus on women and minorities from the local communities. The bureau is making use of print advertising campaigns, an internet site with video, a transit advertising campaign and a partnership with community colleges.

Sizer also outlined policy changes over the past four years, including the addition of a specific police bureau policy prohibiting bias-based policing. The agency's definition of racial profiling was changed to be consistent with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Training is another area where some action has been taken. In 2004-05, in-service training included classes in cultural competency, serving people with epilepsy and crisis intervention training. In 2005-06, training included completion of a course called "Perspectives in Profiling" that includes ethical decision-making.

Community members present were markedly guarded in their response to the report. There were some questions about the validty of the data. The fact that pedestrians and bicyclists stopped by the policewere not a part of the data was cause for concern. But overall, curative action rather than more validation appeared to be their priority.

"The good news is that it hasn't gotten horribly worse and the bad news is it hasn't gotten any better," stated Jo Ann Bowman, a director of the community organization Oregon Action. "The important question is 'how do we fix it?'"

Bowman's group has taken the lead in developing a series of "community listening sessions" between community members and the police. The goal is to establish dialogue between police and community. The sessions began May 18 and run through June.

Dr. T. Allen Bethel, senior pastor of Maranatha Church in northeast Portland, holds similar concerns.

"We've been looking at this data since 2001," stated Bethel. "We need to start correcting the problem."

Bethel, like Bowman, believes it is essential that the police listen to what the community sees as necessary for remedying this problem. The time is past for presentations about what the bureau is doing while community members are reduced to passive listeners. While Bethel wasn't prepared to disclose any specific recommendations that he and other community members have for the bureau, he indicated that those recommendations would be forthcoming in the weeks ahead and community leaders expected more than just acknowledgement of their ideas.

The question that remains is what priority will Mayor Tom Potter also the city's police commissioner give to this issue in 2006? If rumors are correct that he is starting to prepare for a second term, securing the support of the African American and Latino communities early on would be a warning shot to any challengers. If efforts to end "driving while black or brown" turns into a turf fight with the bureau, however, there may be less enthusiasm for pushing for the real changes it will take to expunge the problem. Potter need only look to his predecessor for what happens when a fight with the police bureau turns ugly the 2000 mayoral election where a 19-year-old candidate forced Mayor Vera Katz into a humiliating runoff election.

The elimination of racial profiling will only become a possibility if the community demands the city move beyond the necessary but far from conclusive steps they are currently offering. Training and policies are important. But it will take more than that to overcome the current dynamic between police officer and community member of color.

Redefining the role of the police and empowerment of the community over the police are the only solutions. We must begin working now on converting our police into something other than occupation forces. They must become one part of a group of problem-solvers that includes service providers and others. They need to be spending as much time extracting the roots of crime as they do dealing with the violent fruit that tree produces. cent compared to 12.5 percent.

Most important, they must be doing so under the leadership of the community they serve a leadership that is exercised through democratic institutions like civilian police review boards, elected police commissions and revised and reinvigorated neighborhood and community associations.

That's the path, now let's see where the police bureau chooses to take its first step.

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance

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