Activist Targets Need to Reform Unchecked Police Power

Joanne Hardesty led a march for police accountability last April around City Hall.  Photo by Kendall.

Joanne Hardesty led a march for police accountability last April around City Hall. Photo by Kendall.

By Pete Shaw

Jo Ann Hardesty, a local activist and tireless voice in the struggle for police reform, was the featured speaker at a recent Justice Social Happy Hour. The March 12 gathering, hosted by the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation (MRG) at Portland’s Queen of Sheba restaurant, included a discussion on the movement to hold the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) more accountable for its actions.

Hardesty began by talking about the death of Aaron Campbell. In January 2010, Campbell, whose younger brother had died earlier in the day, was in a NE Portland apartment, distressed and possibly suicidal. According to his aunt, Campbell was in possession of a gun. The apartment was soon surrounded by police, but Officer James Quackenbush appeared to have defused the situation, convincing Campbell to come out. Campbell emerged, hands behind his head, clearly not a threat to himself or anyone else.

Apparently due to a lack of communication, one officer fired six bean bag rounds at Campbell, who proceeded to run away. A police dog was released after him and then Officer Ronald Frashour killed Campbell with one shot from his AR-15 rifle.

Following Campbell’s killing and the lack of accountability for Officer Frashour and other involved officers, the Albina Ministerial Alliance (AMA) formed the Coalition for Justice and Police Reform (CJPR). The purpose of the CJPR was not just to hold Officer Frashour and other police who had killed under questionable circumstances accountable, but to change the culture of the PPB. At best, the City of Portland and the PPB deal with personnel problems by focusing on bad apples. CJPR demanded a deeper look, knowing from years of experience that the problem with PPB is not a few rogue police, but a rotten system in desperate need of overhaul.

In June 2011 – fed up with the inaction of the City and the PPB – the AMA asked the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the PPB as it related to race. But when the report was issued a year later, it focused primarily on how police interact with people suffering from mental health issues. Not surprisingly, it found a PPB that performed poorly in encounters with the mentally ill and was held unaccountable to the people it is supposed to serve. Further back in the report was mention of the PPB’s poor relations with communities of color.

Following the report came a proposed settlement between Mayor Sam Adams and the Justice Department, one that Hardesty described as supposed to be rubber stamped. That proposal would have dedicated $26 million dollars over five years to build up a mental health unit in the PPB. Hardesty and the AMA found this preposterous. “They’ve shown they’re not the people to show up when people are in distress,” she said, adding that the money instead should be put to the mental health system.

The agreement was filed in federal court, but the AMA disputed it, saying the Justice Department did not represent the community. The judge in the case, Michael H. Simon, then gave the AMA limited standing and advanced amicus status, allowing it to take part in mediation as well as file legal briefs and participate in oral arguments. Hardesty said the AMA now is in mediation with the Department of Justice, City of Portland, and the Portland Police Association, but she was not confident that all four parties will agree on a settlement.

One of the recommendations put forth by the AMA is that the police record all “community contacts.” Earlier in her talk, Hardesty described a recent police encounter she and her husband witnessed on Killingsworth Street. Two black men were making an exchange near a convenience store. A police car pulled up, and two cops emerged. They began questioning the men. Very quickly, five more police cars pulled up, and suddenly there were twelve officers, including SWAT, surrounding these two men. As it turned out, the exchange involved fifty cents so one of the men could buy some cigarettes.

Even if the two men were involved in an illicit exchange, the police response was clearly excessive. While such events do not always bring out so many police, acts of police intimidation, particularly in communities of color, are common. Though black people are half as likely to be carrying weapons as white people, in Portland they are 2.5 times more likely to be stopped by police and are frisked twice as often.

Profiling of this kind flourishes due to a lack of accountability. Hardesty said that if a person consents to a search, it will take about ten minutes. But if a person exercises her rights, the affair can last several hours. Often, people choose to consent to the search rather than spend so much time being harassed. It’s a millimeter from coercing a person to give up her rights, and it sends a message that the police are free to act with impunity.

Hardesty said the AMA is pushing three pieces of legislation in Salem toward holding police more accountable, particularly after controversial shootings. The first bill would change the accepted standard of use of force from an officer believing the suspect would injure herself or others, to what a reasonable person would do. The current standard is difficult to disprove. All an officer has to state is that she thought the suspect was reaching for a weapon, and thereby the shooting was justified. Whether or not the suspect had a weapon, or that weapon legitimately posed a threat, does not enter into the equation. The current standard means the PPB is a gang of potential George Zimmermans and each person is Trayvon Martin.

The second bill would require that the investigation of an officer-involved shooting would be done by a neighboring jurisdiction. In theory, this would create less conflict of interest than an in-house investigation.

The last bill would require the grand jury to make public the testimony of police it calls in the aftermath of a police shooting. Currently that is optional, but according to Hardesty, every time she has been able to read grand jury testimony, it has shown a disconnect from what police officers say they did and what they are supposed to do.

When people see a police stop, Hardesty urges them to observe and record the interaction in a safe, polite and respectful way that puts police on notice they are being watched. “Nothing makes a community member safer than when community members are watching,” she said. “If you’re not watching, bad things can happen.”

Hardesty also noted that because there has been so little accountability, the PPB has become an institution where superiors protect their underlings, ensuring the replication of a good-ol’-boy system. She believes that  “unless we get a police chief not from Portland whose goal is to be a transformative leader” it is improbable that PPB culture will change from within.

Hardesty also emphasized the need for police to learn “community norms” and work with the community, though she said the PPB has proven reluctant to let civilians have any real say on police interactions with the public.

An audience member brought up the new training center being built for the police, describing it as resembling an award from the city to the PPB. What matters, of course, is not the quality of a training center, but the quality of both the training and those providing it. “You’re killing unarmed people and we’re rewarding you by building a new training center,” said Hardesty, echoing his concern.

The settlement between the City of Portland and the Department of Justice contains great possibility toward reforming the PPB; however prospects are dim if the solution is to target the actions of individual officers rather than the PPB as whole. We do not need the usual pabulum of public officials once again patting themselves on the back for a job not done, replete with assurances that, having reigned in its rogue officers, the PPB can get back to its mission of serving and protecting.

“We have a police force,” said Hardesty, “that even when they act egregiously, the culture of the PPB is to protect these individuals.”

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