Activists decry lack of police reform
- Jennifer Anderson
- Portland Tribune - News
Forum on fatal shooting of Kendra James leaves many angry, miffed
For activists like Martin Gonzalez, it takes every ounce of energy to remain optimistic that events such as this week's community forum on the Kendra James shooting will result in something positive.
It was at another North Portland church two years ago that he and members of the Latino Network sat among 200 citizens and raised many of the same issues regarding police policy and oversight: the use of deadly force, racial profiling, training issues and an independent committee to review police shootings.
That time, they gathered after the April 1, 2001, death of Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot, shot by an officer in a Southeast Portland psychiatric hospital.
This time, several Latino activists were among a crowd of nearly 500 who heard Police Chief Mark Kroeker, Mayor Vera Katz and Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk vow to examine and change the system as needed.
'The way I'm looking at this, there is no limit to the policy changes we'll consider,' Kroeker said to the booing audience, which wanted more specific examples.
Many in the room said they had heard similar assurances before and didn't know whether this incident would bring true reform in the long term.
'We've been through this so many times before,' said police watchdog Dan Handelman, who has attended every forum, including the one after the 1992 shooting death of 12-year-old Nathan Thomas, and another for Mejia in 2001.
'We've been promised changes that weren't done. É I hear the community say, 'Never again,' and it happens again. É The people feel like they're banging their heads against the wall.'
Activists express frustration
After the forum on the Mejia shooting, members of the Latino Network condensed the dozens of questions raised into a list of pointed recommendations they wanted implemented within the police bureau, TriMet and the county's mental health system.
The results? More than two years later, none of the proposals directed to the police bureau have been met with satisfactory results, Gonzalez said.
A police spokesman said many of the efforts, such as recruiting officers from more diverse pools, have been thwarted by budget cuts. Other efforts, such as officers' psychological testing, are under review by a task force headed by Assistant Police Chief Lynnae Berg.
Gonzalez says what is needed is a mechanism to hold police accountable for policy changes.
City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who attended part of the forum, said he favors a system of 'regular reporting to the council regarding what training is happening.'
Dave Mazza, editor of The Portland Alliance and a longtime activist, believes that citizens need to keep the pressure on officials. 'The moment the community lets up that pressure,' he said, 'the changes will stop happening.'
Sam Adams, chief of staff for Mayor Vera Katz, said the value of Tuesday night's five-hour forum will be determined by how well all parties involved follow through.
'As the mayor said and chief said and pastors agreed, last night would be considered useful only if it served as a first step and not a last step,' he said Wednesday.
Adams noted that Katz and Kroeker will map out the next steps during their regularly scheduled meeting Monday. 'We have a vested interest and responsibility to follow through.'
The racially diverse audience members listened to police lay out their investigation of the May 5 James shooting in painstaking detail. They viewed diagrams of how officer Scott McCollister, who became a police officer a little more than two years ago, shot the 21-year-old during a traffic stop in North Portland.
Replay is jeered
McCollister had told investigators that when James climbed from the back seat to the driver's seat, he fired a single shot at her torso because he feared he would be dragged under while James was driving forward. Attempts to use pepper spray and a taser gun failed.
The audience questioned why there were so many discrepancies between witnesses' and officers' statements, and guffawed during a rehearsed video re-enactment of the officer's position during the shooting.
To the dismay of many community members who wanted to see McCollister fired, Kroeker last week recommended to the mayor that the officer receive a 'lengthy suspension.'
Kroeker defended his decision Tuesday night, noting that the officer would have the chance to fight the discipline through the police union.
'If I believed he was racially motivated, I would've recommended to the mayor his termination,' he said. 'I don't believe he operated with any malicious intent. He was doing his job that night.'
Many of those who spoke out passionately had lost a loved one to a police shooting; others complained about being harassed or intimidated by the police. Many personally attacked Katz, Kroeker and Schrunk for actions or inactions by their offices.
Three people, including a member of the James family, had to be escorted out by security. Many, including city Commissioner Erik Sten, left the room with more questions than answers.
The conflicts led some to think that the forum was counterproductive. 'The meeting made the relationship (between police and the community) worse,' said Jo Ann Bowman, a former state representative who is now an activist. 'It was a public relations disaster.'
Alliance continues its work
For some, it was the form the forum took that made it ineffective.
Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a police spokesman, said many police officials were taken aback when pastor Roy Tate, president of the Albina Ministerial Alliance, cut into a homicide detective's presentation to remark that audience members were tired of listening and wanted their turn to speak.
'The Albina Ministerial Alliance did not follow the agenda that we agreed upon,' Schmautz said. 'We met with the ministers several times É and agreed on the format, which was supposed to be presentations, followed by questions and answers. But they stopped the first presentation after less than an hour and instead of questions and answers, it turned into questions and questions.'
Yet Tate said he was pleased with the results and flow of the night. 'People were able to vent, and the police was able to hear how the community felt,' he said. 'It was a great success. I'm very happy.'
Tate said the next step will be to regroup and prepare new sets of questions for the police. Assistant Chief Derrick Foxworth said Wednesday evening that he plans to meet with the ministerial alliance within the next week.
Bishop A.A. Wells, who is leading the ministerial alliance's investigative committee, said the results of their work will be no more than three weeks out.
He said the report will look at four aspects: why the grand jury exonerated McCollister; the difference between criminal conduct and acting within the 'realm of human limitations'; the 'culture of disrespect' in the police bureau; and the integrity of the James shooting investigation.