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Cops Likely to Reject Key Racial Profiling Recommendation

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On October 19—the day a report on racial profiling, commissioned by Mayor Tom Potter, is delivered to city council—the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) will face pressure to single out allegedly racist cops.

The Mercury obtained a draft copy of the report's executive summary this week, which makes six recommendations aimed at "eliminating racial profiling from the Portland Police Bureau," following five listening sessions earlier this summer between community members and police ("A Little More Conversation?" and "Sizeable Challenge," News, June 1 and June 29).

The recommendations, prepared by advocacy group Oregon Action, in partnership with the Center for Intercultural Organizing and the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center (NWCRC), include suggestions to hold more listening sessions and implement public education programs to minimize conflict or escalation during traffic stops. The groups also recommend a city council commission be convened no later than December, with the aim of eliminating racial profiling.

But the report's most contentious recommendation by far is right at the top: challenging the PPB to single out allegedly racist officers by tracking their individual traffic stop data.

"Starting immediately," the draft recommendation reads, "the PPB should collect and analyze data on individual officers' traffic and pedestrian stops and develop a system of incentives that reward police officers who foster positive relationships with communities of color."

That racial profiling exists in Portland is not up for debate: A week before the first listening session, in May, the PPB issued bureau-wide traffic stop data for 2004 and 2005 (collected without identifying the officers involved) that supported community assertions that African Americans and Latinos are stopped at significantly higher rates than census data might suggest is appropriate. The data, when analyzed by the NWCRC, also showed that African Americans are more likely to be pulled over and searched in areas of Portland where there are less African American residents by percentage of population ("Stopped While Black," In Other News, June 15).

For example, in 2005, black drivers were 3.9 times more likely to be pulled over than whites in Portland's central precinct, where only two percent of residents are black. But in the northeast precinct, where 20 percent of residents are black, the disparity is considerably lower (though certainly not equal): Blacks are 2.3 times more likely to be pulled over, reinforcing the idea that some cops conduct "lifestyle stops," a term that refers to pulling black youths over, allegedly just to ask, "What are you doing in this neighborhood?"

But the report's recommended approach—to single out individual officers for data collection—is unlikely to go down well with the cops' union, the Portland Police Association, which declined to participate in the community listening sessions, and to comment this week when questioned about the report. Police Chief Rosie Sizer also seems reluctant to force the union's hand.

"When we started collecting data, we promised the workforce we wouldn't drill down to individual officer level," she told the Mercury. "Honestly, we have to answer the question, is all that information public record, and how responsible will the press be with that information?"

She feels such data alone would not reflect the circumstances in which an officer operates, and could lead to the unfair labeling of cops as racist by the media.

"The situation is, something happens, there's a public record request, then a label is applied that doesn't include the background information. Personal accountability is really important, but how do you do that in a way that is not labeling, absent of the additional information?" she asks.

It's a view shared by Irwin Mandel, a Portland citizen appointed by city hall as co-chair of the PPB Chief's Forum, which meets twice a month to discuss police issues.

"I think [individual traffic stop data] is a case of you're guilty until proven innocent, and I don't think it's necessary to have it implemented," he says. "It smacks to me of 1984—a little too much of somebody always looking over your shoulder. I think, actually, it could be inhibitory to police work."

But despite Sizer's reluctance, and the skepticism of folks like Mandel, the cops might still reach a compromise with the report's authors, perhaps agreeing to collect and act on individual data, but not to make it public.

"It sounds like [Sizer] is reluctant to take [the report] as it is," says Alejandro Queral, executive director of the NWCRC. "[The individual traffic stops recommendation] is an important one, as the police won't be able to make any progress on this issue unless they're able to show whether this is a case of a few bad apples, or a systemic problem affecting the entire bureau."

"But we're not necessarily saying give us the names of the officers, just keep track of the data. I think there's room for negotiation," he adds.

The report comes as police departments around the country struggle to respond to citizens' allegations of racial profiling. In August, for example, the San Jose Police Department declined to implement eight grand jury recommendations to counter racial profiling—made after the jury investigated the department following a hiphop club shooting—with the San Jose police chief flatly denying the existence of a problem with racial profiling in his department.

Back in Portland, spokespeople for Oregon Action and the mayor's office were unavailable for comment by press time, but for one NE community member who attended all but one of the listening sessions, the report's ultimate success will be judged on more than the acceptance of its individual recommendations.

"Of course I'd like to see individual stops data, but I'm surprised that's the number-one contention," says Clifford Walker. "We need to get to know these guys and have them be part of the community they're profiling. To know good cops from bad cops—that's what this is really about."

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