Most wanted: Police accountability

From Israel Bayer, publisher of Street Roots, September 2014

The tragedy of the Michael Brown killing is rocking the nation. It should.

DirectorsDesk-logo-WEB_14For anyone living in an urban environment, especially people of color and the poor — the events of Michael Brown and the community response is not surprising.

It’s hard to shift through all of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, but one thing is for sure: there’s a commonality throughout America right now — again, especially in urban environments. People are sick and tired of the lack of police accountability when it comes to the actions of a handful of officers who kill unarmed residents. The response by law enforcement and the militarization of the police adds fuel to the fire.

Here’s the thing. The vast majority of police officers are amazing individuals who conduct heroic acts every day. I’ve personally witnessed with my own two eyes the police save people’s lives and deescalate conflicts that were deadly serious. It’s routine. There’s no question that it’s one of the toughest jobs that exist.

When things go wrong, it’s easy to cast the police in bad light without the proper context.

The Portland Police Bureau and Chief Mike Reese recently released a video talking about the importance of trust in light of the events in Ferguson. He highlighted three important areas the police bureau is working on: diversity, use of force policies and transparency — all things that are vital to maintaining trust between the public and a healthy police force. The one vital thing missing in the video is accountability. It would be easy for the public to give the police and city governments the benefit of the doubt if there was any. Unfortunately, there’s not. There never has been.

Accountability would mean actually stopping racial profiling and working to hold officers accountable when they engage in wrongful activities related to their use of force and not representing the communities they serve. It would mean creating police oversight with teeth.

It’s fantastic that both complaints against officers and use-of-force incidents have declined in Portland. It’s great we’re working to change the makeup of the police force to reflect the community and committed to equity goals. It’s not enough.

For example, the city can’t offer one good reason why the officers involved in the James Chasse case are still police officers. Not one. There’s no excuse. There’s simply no amount of reform the police can accomplish that will replace real police accountability.

The events in Ferguson have magnified these discussions in Portland and across the nation. These are not isolated incidents.

Communities across the country want real police oversight. Portland is no different.

Real police accountability has almost become a hollow term. It’s no secret that police unions are one of the most powerful institutions that exist in American politics. How a police union can be more powerful than the government its members represent I have no idea. It’s always baffled me.

In the meantime, we are left to work around the edges and to make both the public’s relationship with the police and the police bureau itself the best it can be. The sad reality is, regardless of the evidence or how the community actually feels, real police accountability always seems to make a great escape.