In early 2010, Portland police officers were dispatched to check on the welfare of a young African American man whose brother had died earlier that day. Aaron Campbell was at his girlfriend’s flat and was said to be distraught over the death of his brother, whom he had nursed before he succumbed to heart disease and kidney failure. A family member called the police, fearing Campbell might be suicidal, and officers arrived to check that he was not going to harm himself or anyone else.
The police quickly established that Campbell was heartbroken, not dangerous, and even exchanged a jokey text message with him that helped put the officers at ease. But then a second police unit arrived, armed with tactical weapons.
It had limited communication with the officers talking to Campbell. It did not know that they had concluded he was fine and they were prepared to leave. Within minutes the unarmed Campbell was dead, following a sequence of events that an incredulous grand jury later said was all the more outrageous because what happened was legal under police regulations in a city that regards itself as one of the most progressive in the US.
The civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called Campbell’s killing “an execution”. It prompted a US Department of Justice investigation into a decade of the use of excessive force by the Portland police, from the beating to death in custody of a musician to an officer holding a gun to the head of an unarmed woman before she was shot.
The probe led to a court agreement in August between the city and federal authorities on reforms to police training, use of force and accountability. The Justice Department described what it called a “groundbreaking deal” as introducing “innovative new mechanisms” to ensure community participation in oversight of the reforms with the inclusion of civil rights groups as a party to the agreement. The deal also requires the appointment of an official to monitor changes and the election of a community advisory board on policing.
The federal judge who approved the agreement, Michael Simon, took the unusual step, over the objections of the city’s leadership and the police union, of ordering that its implementation should be reviewed by the court each year to ensure it was being fulfilled.
Civil rights leaders have described the deal as a potential model for co-operation in other cities, such as Ferguson, Missouri, which was rocked by protests over the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer last month.
The Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, an association of Portland civil rights groups that is a party to the deal, welcomed it as a “major step to creating a true community policing culture”. It said the agreement was important “to prevent a Ferguson upheaval in Portland”.
But the AMA Coalition chair, Reverend LeRoy Haynes, like others pressing for police reform, is also critical of the agreement because he says the Justice Department sidestepped the real issue – race.
“Six percent of this city is black, but about a third of those shot by the police are African American,” he said. “There certainly is a racial issue in this city with police shootings. But the Justice Department and the city took the easiest route and made this something else.”
The AMA Coalition pressed for a comprehensive Justice Department investigation of the Portland police following Campbell’s death. The federal authorities agreed but framed it as an inquiry into the excessive use of police force against mentally ill people.
Campbell was evidently upset at his brother’s death, but he was also African American. He is widely regarded in Portland’s black community to have been a victim of his skin colour.
“The issue of race is a footnote when it should have been central to this investigation,” said Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, which monitors the city’s police. “What’s been happening here is not that different to Ferguson.”
Haynes visited Ferguson last month in support of the campaign for justice for Michael Brown. He said that while Portland, with its professed liberal values, hipster culture and laid-back image, appears to be a world away from Ferguson, he saw parallels.
“This city is not as liberal as it thinks it is,” he said. “You have a strong progressive element but there are still strains of the old system of institutional racism in Portland. You don’t just get rid of that.”
‘In the 20s and 30s, the Klan pretty much controlled the council’
Oregon has an inglorious history of racial prejudice, including a clause in its constitution barring African Americans from living in the state. A law passed in the 1850s required black people to be “lashed” once a year, to encourage them to leave.
Until the late 1950s, Portland real estate brokers abided by an industry code under which they refused to sell houses in white neighbourhoods to African Americans.
“There’s a historical context that Portland even though it was a northwestern city, it was very segregated,” said Haynes. “In the 20s and 30s, the [Ku Klux] Klan pretty much controlled the city council here. A lot of the housing laws were Jim Crow.”
Haynes said the stain of prejudice still taints the city police and pointed to a controversy around a senior officer, Mark Kruger, who kept his job despite erecting a memorial in a public park to five Nazi soldiers, including a member of Hitler’s SS and an officer who was a war criminal. Kruger now heads the Portland police’s drugs and vice division.
The Justice Department report was damning of the police. It found that over many years the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) “engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional use of force against individuals with actual or perceived mental illness”.
Among the cases it investigated was that of a 42-year-old local musician who suffered from schizophrenia, James Chasse, who was shot multiple times with a taser and beaten so badly by police he had a punctured lung, 16 fractured ribs and 26 broken bones in all. He died in custody. The city later admitted that the police had no grounds to detain Chasse and paid his family $1.6m. The officer accused of leading the beating had previously come under scrutiny for shooting a 12-year-old girl with a baton round.
The Justice Department said it found “a pattern of dangerous uses of force against persons who posed little or no threat and who could not, as a result of their mental illness, comply with officers’ commands”. In one case, Portland police repeatedly tasered a naked and unarmed man who was acting oddly because he was suffering a diabetic emergency. The Justice Department said Portland police were also swift to escalate the use of force when its use “could have been avoided or minimised”.
Tom Steenson, a civil rights lawyer who represented the Campbell and Chasse families in lawsuits against the city, welcomed the recognition that the Portland police used too much force against people who are mentally disturbed. But he said that is just one manifestation of a broader pattern of behaviour that extends to the treatment of racial minorities.
“The training focuses so much on worst case scenarios that to prevent those worse case scenarios they resort to deadly force when it’s not necessary,” he said. “This doesn’t just happen with the mentally ill. If you look at almost every set of statistics, what you find is huge disparities in race when it comes to stops, when it comes searches, when it comes to uses of force – both in the amount and the number of times force is used. It’s clearly disparate. African Americans are the worse treated. They feel the brunt of policing in the community worse than anybody.”
Steenson said Campbell’s shooting is a case in point. One group of officers had already established that Campbell was not a threat but asked him to come out of his girlfriend’s flat and talk. Campbell was walking out backwards with his hands locked behind his head when he was shot repeatedly with beanbag baton rounds by officers from a second unit.
He instinctively reached down to where he was hit. Another officer, Ronald Frashour, immediately shot Campbell dead with a high powered rifle. Frashour said later that he thought Campbell, who was not armed, was reaching for a weapon.
A Portland grand jury said Frashour acted within regulations but in a letter to the district attorney said that did not mean it regarded the officer as innocent.
“This was very difficult for us as a grand jury, as our sympathies lie with the Campbell family and the mood of the community. As a group, we are outraged at what happened,” the letter said.
The grand jury blamed flawed police policies, including training focused on the maximum use of force, and poor command structure for Campbell’s death and said the police bureau “should be held responsible for this tragedy”.
The city paid Campbell’s family $1.2m. Six years earlier a federal jury awarded $55,000 to a man who was illegally tasered by Frashour.
Although the Justice Department sidestepped a full investigation of racism by the police in Portland, it did note “the often tense relationship between PPB and the African American community”, and the widespread perception within the black community of racial profiling and that the police “protect the white folk and police the black folk”.
The city’s mayor, Charlie Hales, who is also its police commissioner, declined to be interviewed. His spokesman, Dana Haynes, said the city accepts that there is “great room for improvement” in the police treatment of African Americans.
“Our community of colour has had issues with the police department in this city, and rightly so,” he said. “The mayor said people are not complaining out of nothing.”
There is a belief on all sides that the agreement on police reforms will have a wider impact beyond just on how the Portland force deals with the mentally ill.
LeRoy Haynes has welcomed it as “a total, comprehensive reform” of the police department. But he also said the agreement does not go far enough in ensuring officers are held accountable for their actions. One issue is a clause in the police union agreement that allows officers not to be questioned about the use of deadly force for 48 hours after they kill someone.
“Can you imagine an ordinary person being allowed to tell the police they didn’t want to be questioned for two days after shooting someone?” said Haynes. “What we’ve often seen is there’s one standard for the police officer and another standard for the citizen in Portland.”
The agreement does include a commitment to improve a police complaints procedure which the Justice Department said was so complicated and ineffective it was a “self defeating accountability system”. But the skeptics want to see it in action.
Steenson said the agreement does not go far enough in setting limits on the use of deadly force.
“It’s not going to hurt. There are things that are positive. But as long as officers are allowed to use the amount of force they are trained to use, unfettered at their discretion, I don’t see any great hope,” he said.
“I’ve litigated cases in this city involving deaths since the mid-80s and typically when you have a death, and a high profile death, you tend to see some temporary change or improvement in the department. But then the culture that an officer can use as much force as he deems necessary permeates the bureau again. There’s a sense they can act with impunity when it comes to using force that results in death.”
A commitment to reform?
Although Portland’s police chief has said he is committed to reform, civil rights groups expect resistance from some within the force after the police union rejected any notion of a systematic problem with officers’ treatment of the mentally ill, people of colour or anyone else.
In response to the Justice Department’s criticism, Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, condemned what he called “the Monday morning quarterbacking and 20/20 hindsight of others” in judging when and how police officers use force. He called on the mayor, city council, police chief and other critics “to stop the negative, anti-police sentiment by highlighting the quality work done by every one of our members on a daily basis”.
No one is quite sure how this is going to work out in practice. But LeRoy Haynes said the reformists’ hand has been strengthened by Judge Simon’s order for federal court oversight. The city and police union had opposed the move, which requires an annual hearing at which a compliance officer monitoring the implementation, the AMA coalition and other parties will submit their views on progress of the reforms.
The city objected on the grounds that it could be used by the court to create an open ended process and load on additional changes. LeRoy Haynes said what Portland’s leadership really feared was having to fulfill the agreement.
“I think they believed that this would be something that was quickly passed over and that it would be another showpiece and they’d go through the motions. But what has happened with the decision of Judge Simon is you have a federal judge overseeing the reforms even if the city council does not go through with its part of implementation. There’s another legal leverage being applied here, that was kind of unexpected,” he said.
“It means the people of Portland can hold up this agreement to scrutiny.”