Police must join dialogue

My View: After deaths, union needs to come to table
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Alejandro Queral talked with then-acting Chief Rosie Sizer about police profiling at an open community meeting in May. Queral says the voice of the police union has been largely missing from such conversations.

The recent death of James Chasse Jr. is the latest in a series of events pointing to the need for change within the Portland Police Bureau.

First, there was the release of traffic stop data by the bureau showing that African-Americans and Latinos are stopped by police at higher rates than whites. Second, there were several incidents involving the use of Tasers, including one incident in March that resulted in the death of Timothy Grant. According to Portland Copwatch, there have been five police shootings or in-custody deaths this year alone. Chasse's death appears to be the last straw for Portland residents who are eager to see some real solutions to the problems plaguing the police bureau.

Police Chief Rosie Sizer and the City Council appear ready and willing to find solutions to these problems. Chief Sizer has been working with community groups to end the practice of racial profiling. Mayor Tom Potter recently made a public commitment to return to the City Council with a timeline for setting up a community-based racial profiling committee. The committee would monitor data collection and make recommendations for policy changes. Mayor Potter has also recognized the need for better officer training to safely help people with mental illnesses - he's now seeking roughly $500,000 to accomplish that goal.

Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association - the union that represents nearly 1,000 Portland police officers - has an opportunity to be part of this effort, which could bring about much-needed changes identified by the community. Unfortunately, King's public statements suggest that he is more interested in derailing efforts that invite greater community involvement to help develop better police practices.

Community members have made every effort to include the union in this dialogue and will continue to do so. We invited King to attend a series of five listening sessions held over the course of last summer to discuss the practice of race-based policing - one union representative attended one meeting.

At the Oct. 19 City Council hearing on the community's efforts to eradicate racial profiling, King stated that the dialogue between the police and the community 'wasn't productive, it wasn't a discussion we were going to engage in.'

In fact, Chief Sizer and other officers who attended the listening sessions have publicly praised the sessions as a positive learning experience, not a finger-pointing exercise. Together, the police and the community were able to craft six recommendations that, if implemented, could significantly reduce race-based policing.

There is no question that police work is a difficult and dangerous job and that officers are sometimes the subjects of unfair criticism. But it is also the only job in the city that equips its employees with lethal weapons and with the right to use lethal force under certain circumstances. Clearly, police officers must be held to higher standards and be accountable to the community whenever an officer violates the U.S. Constitution or bureau policy, and whenever patterns of such violations arise.

King and the union's leadership have an opportunity to be part of the solution by working with the community to find realistic policy proposals that are acceptable to all stakeholders. It won't be an easy process, but adopting a position that allows no room for dialogue erodes the community's trust in the police.

Alejandro Queral is the executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center, a nonprofit organization based in Portland. For information, visit www.nwcrc.org.