A common pattern often emerges after a citizen dies at the hands of police. There is public rage. The city promises reform, and then the rage simmers off until the next incident. Less noticeable, however, is the constant work of people dedicated to bringing reform to the Portland Police Bureau, notably Jo Ann Hardesty (formerly Jo Ann Bowman).
Originally from Baltimore, Hardesty has been an Oregon state legislator, the head of the civil rights organization Oregon Action and one of Portland’s most vital and outspoken critics of the Portland police.
Two years ago, Hardesty was part of a coalition that helped pass a city ordinance aimed at strengthening oversight of the police by expanding the Independent Police Review (IPR) Division’s powers to investigate police and giving it more of a role in how officers are disciplined. The ordinance was passed in response to a string of incidents where Portlanders were killed in standoffs with the police. But despite the efforts of the city, the bureau now finds itself the subject of a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
Recently, Hardesty served as a member of the city’s charter commission, a group of citizens selected by City Council and charged with making changes to what is basically Portland’s constitution. Although City Council intended the commission to refer “house-keeping” amendments to voters for final approval, Hardesty used the occasion to propose two measures related to how police can control crowds.
That opportunity was dashed when the commission adjourned Feb. 27, amid controversy and acrimony, with no signficiant policy proposals recommended for a public vote. Still, Hardesty hopes that the proposals, which were inspired by people involved in the Occupy Portland movement, will spark a broader discussion on police accountability while voters are also getting ready to select their next mayor.
Jake Thomas: Regarding the charter commission, you proposed two amendments that would bar police from using animals or chemicals to control crowds. Why should this be in the charter?
Jo Ann Hardesty: It actually shouldn’t be in the charter. We should have a police chief that would just implement it, or we should have a police commissioner who would say make it so because it’s good public policy. But since we have neither of those, the charter is the only option to the public right now. It’s not the whole police accountability package, but it certainly starts us on the process, and what I love is the opportunity to talk about it during the election season. Really, what does police accountability look like? I’d say that there are certainly other things that should be included with police accountability, but these two things are the most visible today right now and mostly on peoples’ minds because of Occupy and because of some of the most recent encounters with police. If it’s on the ballot, people will be talking about it, and we can create real community dialogue about what real police accountability looks like, and it forces people on the ballot to have this conversation.
I think the charter commission was set up for failure, quite frankly, because the mayor and the City Council didn’t want us doing policy issues. They gave us inadequate staff they gave us inadequate resources. They really tried to tie our hands. They didn’t expect in the short period of time that I would be able to come up with a couple proposals that would make it to the ballot.
J.T.: Was this a lost opportunity for some real change?
J.H.: I certainly agree with the lost opportunity for the public. It is really frustrating to work as hard as we did without the support of the public body that put us together. It supports the need to remove this process from the political process.
One of the housekeeping measures if passed in May, will provide a structure and timeline for the next charter effort. It would appoint commissioners for a two-year period of time. I continue to believe what the mayor said to me in a private meeting: he didn’t care about these issues, and it is reflected in the lack of staff and resources dedicated to this effort.
J.T.: It’s been about two years since City Council passed an ordinance meant to bring greater oversight to the police bureau. Looking back, how well has this ordinance worked?
J.H.: Commissioner Randy Leonard put together a work group that came up with 54 recommendations for changes. The City Council implemented four of those changes, and I would say that it is not working yet. We don’t have true police reform in the oversight process yet.
J.T.: What needs to happen?
J.H.: Several things need to happen. The IPR director needs to have the ability to have her own attorney. The city attorney represents the police, the City Council, the IPR director and anyone else within the city government. Their advice is always about how to limit liability or limit the possibility of a lawsuit. But if the IPR director had an independent attorney that could advise her about the appropriateness of filing charges against police officers, holding them accountable for some egregious behavior, then she would have much more power to implement her own investigations, get her own legal advice and then be able to recommend what the punishment should be.
The problem with the current system is the independent review process really does no review. They review what the police and the internal investigation committee has already done, or they recommend that the Internal Affairs Division actually conduct the investigation. So in and of themselves, they have the ability to do their own investigations, but they don’t. The whole IPR system is flawed. So trying to fix a flawed system becomes very, very frustrating.
I would like to see that system go away because it was supposed to be temporary 10 years ago. It was created by then Mayor Vera Katz who said, let’s try this for a year and see what happens. It’s become institutionalized and the assumption is that it works, and it doesn’t. It doesn’t work for community members, it doesn’t work as far as giving the community certainty that police are being independently investigated and then held accountable for their behavior.
J.T.: So what specific things should have been in the police-reform ordinance?
J.H.: Before the ordinance was passed, a work group made 54 recommendations and laid out some good ideas, like making sure that the auditor has the ability to show up at crime scenes and actually conduct her own investigation. She has the power to do that, but it actually looks like the City Council lessened her ability to do that in a follow-up ordinance. I don’t think it’s police that should be investigating police. There should be an independent citizen committee investigating police. If those 54 recommendations had been adopted by the City Council, I think that this system would be better because at least it would have those independent pieces in place, and then we would have to wait and see if that worked.
J.T.: Are any other cities doing anything worth emulating?
J.H.: I think San Francisco has a true independent body that actually investigates police. We wouldn’t want to copy them exactly, but they had some good things like their total independence, and their budget is set by statute so it doesn’t get in a political fight if people don’t like the outcomes. They have community members that serve on the body. I think that’s just one of several models around the country that we should be looking at.
J.T.: In response to a string of incidents where mentally fragile individuals died at the hands of police, the bureau has taken steps to make officers better equipped for such encounters. Has the bureau made any progress in this area?
J.H.: Some days I think that they’re making progress. We read every once in a while how the police were able to come to a situation where someone is suffering mental illness and they’ve been able to de-escalate the situation. But we hear that rarely. Most of the time what we hear is that they had to kill them because they had a little knife or they were aggressive in some manner like the poor guy on the roof of a garage downtown.
We’re told that under former Mayor Tom Potter that every law enforcement officer had been trained in how to identify and de-escalate situations with people who are suffering from mental health issues and be able to call a special team if they need it. So sometimes they use that system, and sometimes they don’t, and when they don’t another community member dies unnecessarily. And what’s frustrating for me, and I think others, is there is training in how to address people with mental health issues. We have mental health workers all over this state where every single day they confront the kind of things Portland police confront, but they don’t kill people. They are able to immobilize people, to calm them down, to de-escalate the situation. So, if we’re training police in de-escalation why is it not working for them most of the time?
J.T.: You mentioned the Justice Department’s investigation of Portland police. What are some things you hope will come out of that?
J.H.: Well, I’m hoping that the Justice Department investigation will confirm that people of color and people with mental health issues are treated differently by Portland police, and I’m hoping the Justice Department will have very specific steps that Portland police will be required to take to remediate that activity.
What’s good about when the Justice Department comes in, is that they recommend very specific actions that they want to see the local police department take. I hope they come out with a laundry list of things for Portland police, so that the community can have a better level of comfort with interacting with the police.
J.T.: Has any progress been made on the issue of racial profiling? Former Police Chief Rosie Sizer did some work on the issue, but have we seen anything since then?
J.H.: No, actually once the racial profiling committee was disbanded by Mayor Tom Potter, the replacement was supposed to be the Human Right Commission’s sub-committee on Police and Community Relations. I used to go to those meetings. The predominance of that committee were cops. The community members that they selected for the committee had to apply, and the people they selected had the least knowledge of police activities. I would go to those meetings and sit through the whole two hours until the 10 minutes of public comment, and I would be a bit appalled because I would hear police lying to community members about tactics or about activities or about what they’d been involved in. The people on the committee, because they didn’t know police other than from that committee, believed them.
They were not getting to the problem because it was a police-led kind of effort, and the police got to frame the conversation. They didn’t want anyone to talk about anything that was going to make the police uncomfortable. Well, it’s uncomfortable when police shoot people in our community. That’s uncomfortable. When they racial profile people, that’s uncomfortable. So it didn’t matter to me that people who are paid with taxpayer dollars are going to be uncomfortable in a meeting. They need to get over that.
J.T.: Do you have any thoughts on how racial profiling has affected police work, specifically with gang violence?
J.H.: Keaton Otis is dead because we had ill-trained gang officers riding the streets of Northeast Portland. That young man is dead because someone looked at him and thought he was African American and is between 14 and 24, therefore he must be a gang member, right? That moment when that officer made that decision to pull that young man over, they just escalated everything up until the point where they shot and killed him.
I think the police have a huge challenge because the community distrusts them because of their experience being stopped and searched just for walking down the street in their neighborhood. The police don’t get a lot of African Americans saying, “I know so-and-so is a gang member, and so-and-so has a gun.” They are not getting the community cooperation from people because people have observed over and over again this behavior.
When my office was on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, I can’t tell you how many times I saw the police pull over young African-American men, search them, search their car, search their back packs and then let them go. Now the interesting thing about that is there is no record of those stops. Even though the Portland police keep records of traffic and pedestrian stops those aren’t captured because they don’t call that a traffic stop. They call that a “walk and talk.” They’re just trying to find out what they’re doing in the neighborhood, even though they’ve searched them, and they’ve stopped them and limited their ability to move freely, they don’t consider that a stop. So the data doesn’t tell us how bad the situation is. But if you observe it, you can see this happens over and over and over again in certain communities.
This police chief doesn’t even mention racial profiling or the plan to reduce racial profiling that former Chief Rosie Sizer actually produced a year late. It certainly doesn’t come up during budget times because there were some very specific recommendations that Chief Sizer developed that had financial implications. We’re in the budget season now; I’ve heard no one talk about how we are going to fund the plan to eliminate racial profiling.
J.T.: How do you rank current crop of mayoral candidates on issues of police accountability?
J.H.: I think they’re all bad, and they’re not bad because they’re bad people, they’re bad because they don’t know what they don’t know yet. So I don’t think that there is any one candidate that stands out that’s going to do a great job reforming the police bureau. But what I’m hoping is that during this campaign season the community will ask these candidates that want to be mayor, what is your vision of true community policing? What do you think the role of a police chief should be? Do you like the one we have? Then based on those answers, pick the best person that we think is going to move the police bureau forward. I guess the good news is that all three candidates, because they’re not insiders to City Hall and downtown, could make the changes, but the question is if they will have the political will to make those changes.
J.T.: What would prove to you that we have police accountability?
J.H.: This is the first time in over 20 years that a Portland police officer has been indicted for using deadly force on duty — the cop who shot the guy with a shotgun using real bullets and not bean-bag rounds.
Real police accountability would say it’s impossible to think that out of 5,000 employees that nobody ever does anything wrong. So I would suspect that there are officers that would be fired, there would be officers that would be demoted, officers that would have to go through some kind of supervised training. And right now, I don’t believe that any of this happens. For me, real police accountability would mean that periodically that a police officer would be fired, or demoted or sent back to retraining and that would be public knowledge.
J.T.: What is the police bureau doing right?
J.H.: (Pause) There are a lot of good men and women in the police bureau who go to work every day and do their job in a respectful, thoughtful manner, and I don’t think there’s a lot of police officers that misuse their power. But I think that police become more empowered to misuse their power when they’re not held accountable. They answer over 40,000 calls a year and they don’t kill 40,000 people a year, so that means most of the time they get it right. When they don’t get it right, the problem is they don’t say, “yeah, we messed up that one.” They say it’s the person that they killed who is at fault because they didn’t follow directions, which I’ve never heard of anyone in a mental health crisis following directions.
We certainly know that there are some police officers whose names show up in excessive force complaints. But we have no certainty, quite frankly. I don’t know who is a good police officer. I would hate to be in a position where I needed a police officer, and I was unsure if the one I got was the right one. That would petrify the daylights out of me. That’s why so many community members are petrified of calling the police.