City comes to grips with unsettling statistics
The cops say they are trying. But there is no easy way to change a police culture that clearly results in a disproportionate amount of attention focused on minorities.
Almost no one says cops purposely profile people based on race. Among police, academics and local activists, rare is the criticism that more than a tiny percentage of cops are racist or unfairly target minorities.
Study upon study shows that in some form or another racial profiling exists in Portland. But with few people inside or outside the Portland Police Bureau believing that it happens on purpose, the issue is not easily addressed by public dialogues and policy changes.
Instead of trying piecemeal on-paper changes, the police bureau has taken on a much larger task: how to change the way its officers make basic, fundamental decisions.
'There is no doubt we have to do something,' Portland interim Police Chief Rosie Sizer said last month after a news conference at which she released two years of figures that showed large over-representations of blacks and Hispanics in traffic-stop data. 'We have some ideas, but what we need to do now is listen and be open to hearing what other people have to say we should look at.'
William Feyerhern, vice provost for research and graduate studies at Portland State University, who has studied race and policing, said the most underexamined aspect of racial profiling data was the lack of understanding the public generally has of the independence police officers have in their work.
'The police bureau doesn't really have the ability to say it's going to move its most sensitive, best, most thoughtful, most culturally understanding officers into certain districts with a large minority population,' he said. 'So it has to be part of the training every police officer relies on to make split-second decisions. It has to be a part of the whole agency's culture, to make those decisions in a better way.'
One possibility lies to the west, not far off the Sunset Highway in Hillsboro, where police have quietly been creating what is seen as a statewide, if not a national, model for such introspection.
In Hillsboro, data police collected showed that cops searched Hispanic drivers at a rate disproportionate to whites. There was a perception that poor black drivers were targeted along one of Hillsboro's thoroughfares. Rank-and-file cops were convinced there was no large conspiracy in the agency, so they didn't make strong efforts to change their own thinking and behavior.
And it seemed that no matter what the Hillsboro Police Department had done in the past, the sticky stigma of racial profiling remained.
Which got Chief Ron Louie to thinking.
'The first thing I needed was data, some sort of evidence to challenge perceptions,' he said.
With a bachelor's degree in social science and a master's in anthropology, and as a minority himself - he is Chinese-American - Louie put his degrees to work in the cop shop.
It started with a four-point plan for himself and police command staff. Be credible. Don't move too fast. Don't do too much. And make sure everybody - from officers to activists -understands the goal.
'Most agencies would have all these rules or they'd write a policy to address racial profiling, and that's a terrible idea,' Louie said. 'You throw the data at your officers and say, 'Here's how you're going to change,' and they end up feeling accused and you lose them.'
Going deeper into the data
In putting together a team of officers to begin collecting and analyzing the data, Louie said he was mindful of the wary eyes of skeptical cops. He said he chose seven of his most-respected, best officers to lead the effort. Once they were committed, others fell in line.
His people analyzed the stops of blacks and found that most of them were Intel Corp. employees late to work and that they, as a group, were not poor and often were speeding.
They found that Hispanics stopped in Hillsboro were more likely than other ethnic groups to be driving without a license, an offense for which a search is mandatory under Oregon law.
Portland police data show a similar disparity - white drivers are searched at a lesser rate than Hispanics or blacks, but cops more often find contraband on whites - but the police bureau has done no similar analysis on the reasons behind the disparity.
Hillsboro police did not get be-all, end-all answers from their initial efforts, but they started the conversation with the community, Louie said.
Harder still, though, was convincing his officers to make changes. In some other jurisdictions, including Eugene, police unions had sued over having to collect and analyze such data.
'I wanted them to basically re-evaluate some of their core training,' Louie said. 'Are they making a stop because of a person's behavior or known identity or because of some profile they seem to fit? I want them asking themselves that right before turning their lights on every time.'
Ticket helps explain stop
Louie also instituted a discretionary policy of issuing citations for underlying traffic offenses even if a person wound up being arrested for resisting arrest or some other charge.
'What we found was that people wanted to get a ticket,' he said. 'Well, not exactly. But they wanted to know, they wanted some tangible reason for why they were stopped in the first place - a bad taillight, failure to signal, whatever. And if one of my officers made an arrest after a stop but did not issue the citation, there was no proof of why the stop was made, and that frustrated people like crazy.'
Portland officer Steve Collins looked around his own agency and wondered how the cops he worked with were supposed to react to constant charges of profiling and outright racism. A former Gang Enforcement Team cop now assigned to the Explosive Disposal Unit, Collins wanted his own answers. So in 1999, he began collecting data about victims of certain violent crimes going back to 1985.
'I'm not a statistician, just a Joe Blow who knew I was doing this job for the right reasons and knew there had to be an explanation for the data that always came out,' he said.
So in his downtime -while his partner was filling out a report or before a meeting - Collins worked on filling his thick black three-ring binder with data on victims of homicides, attempted murder with a handgun and aggravated assault with a handgun of all races and genders and between the ages of 15 and 35.
'I didn't look at suspects,' he said. 'I wanted to let people make up their own perception without getting into my motivations. These are the people I work for, right here in this book. The victims.'
His findings were stark: Blacks were far more represented as victims in those categories than they were in traffic stops. And beyond that, blacks were the only racial or ethnic group over-represented in Collins' data.
'Let's get the people safe who are disproportionate targets for violence, let's get that under control, and then let's talk about racial profiling,' Collins said.
Because blacks are disproportionately victims of violent crime, and because police believe that most of that crime is committed by blacks against other blacks, blacks as a group warrant more attention than their population size would suggest, Collins said.
'I take this real personal'
Alejandro Queral, director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center, has been working with the police bureau on the issue of racial profiling, helping organize five community meetings to open a dialogue on the subject. He said Collins' perspective was valuable but was not enough.
'If you start from the premise that criminals look like African-Americans, you're still going to be racially profiling,' Queral said. 'It may not be racism, but it feels like it's racism. It's not the police officer's perception of his own behavior that is important here.'
Collins found that of 276 homicides, blacks were victims in 123 - 44.6 percent, while they make up only 6.9 percent of Portland's population, according to a 2003 U.S. Census estimate. Whites, estimated at 78.7 percent of the population, were victims in 38.8 percent of the homicides.
Blacks make up an even larger percentage of victims of attempted murder with a handgun - 62.8 percent of 199 instances. Whites: 18.1 percent.
And of 4,093 aggravated assaults with a handgun that met Collins' criteria, blacks were victims in 40.2 percent of them, compared with 48.9 percent for whites.
And Collins illustrates how many officers feel about being tarred with accusations of unfair racial treatment.
'I take this real personal,' he said. 'I take this job personal. I take this criticism personal. This is my life's work, being a cop. I just hope that having this stuff out there means we can have a better dialogue with the community and focus on where the most crucial problems are.'
Old-time example cited
Because Portland - and Oregon - is so predominantly white, police often contend with what Portland State's Feyerhern said was the concern of residents of London in the middle of the 19th century.
'They were concerned that the police would become a standing army of occupation, outsiders with outside values that had nothing to do with where they were deployed,' he said. 'Not that every African-American or Latino is out there spouting British history, but that's in essence what they're saying.'
Annabelle Jaramillo, a Benton County commissioner who serves with Feyerhern on the governor-appointed statewide Law Enforcement Contacts Policy and Data Review Committee, said that in minority communities the police presence can feel like that.
'Even if you have data, perceptions are hard to refute,' she said. 'You need training, you need officers to buy in to this, but maybe most important you need line supervisors as well.'
Supervisors at the sergeant level, she said, have a greater impact on a young officer's development than senior command staff.
'When they get data that shows disparities, they need to ask themselves, 'What am I doing that encourages this kind of decision making?' ' Jaramillo said.
Revisiting the basic training
She and Louie have been working with the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training - which runs Oregon's basic police academy - to redesign portions of its curriculum to address the disparities in data from police agencies statewide.
'It needs to be a centerpiece,' she said. 'And it needs to be complete. You can't take any one component and get the whole thing to work.'
Ultimately, the measure of any such effort will be whether it works on the street. Whether people of color feel safer and treated fairly, whether cops make decisions with cultural sensitivity in mind by reflex and not because they sat through a one-hour training seminar the week before.
No one said it would be easy.
'It's a battle of perception,' Collins said. 'And it's a battle I don't know if we can win. But we have to use all the tools at our disposal and try.'