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Black and White

Unsolved Murders Bring Charges of Racism

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ON JUNE 16, the Portland police staged a press event in the recesses of Forest Park to announce they were getting serious about clearing up the city's backlog of unsolved murder cases. Chief Mark Kroeker accompanied Ron Overlund to the exact spot where, four years earlier, his daughter's body was found. There, Chief Kroeker explained that her killer still had yet to be caught. He urged anyone with information on the case to come forward. Overlund, it should be noted, is white.The Oregonian ran an extensive story on the event, noting that a $1,000 reward was available for information. 13 days later, the police announced they'd made an arrest in the case.

About the same time, The Oregonian published a much smaller story on another unsolved murder, the 1995 killing of 21-year-old Toyriea Martin. It was not based on a police press event and, even though the national Crime Stoppers organization offers an identical $1000 reward, the article made no mention of it. Martin, it should be noted, was black. The murder remains unsolved.

African-American parents of murdered children in Portland say these differences--albeit subtle--are typical of the way their murdered sons and daughters are slighted both by local media and the police bureau.

"Our justice is not the same," said Thelma Stone, whose son's murder two years ago remains unsolved. "I feel very strongly that the police are not working our cases."

While the police bureau does not maintain a running comparison of the racial differences of unsolved murdered cases, there is wide-spread agreement that a disproportionate number involve black victims. Moreover, parents of these victims believe that low success rates indicate a significant difference in commitment by the police to the black and white communities.

Certainly, the elevated murder rate in African-American communities in Portland attributes to this difference. Although blacks make up less than 10 percent of the city's population, 38 percent of homicide victims in 1997 were black, 35 percent in 1998, and 27 percent in 1999. But many African-Americans believe that the differences go much deeper. There is a shared belief that racism underscores the failure of the police to resolve these cases.Willie Banks Jr. was murdered in Northeast Portland almost three years ago. Even though there was a witness to the shooting, the killer remains at large. His father, Reverend Willie Banks, says the police haven't done enough to solve the case because his son was black. Banks is the pastor for The New Beginnings Church of God in Christ.

On the evening of November 16, 1996, Willie Jr. drove his girlfriend to a small market at the corner of NE 15th and Prescott. She waited in the car while he ran into the store. When the 19-year-old Banks came out, he found another man leaning on his car, talking to his girlfriend. When Banks asked what was going on, the man pulled out a handgun, shot Banks in the head, and ran.

"The police just did nothing," says Rev. Banks, a slight but energetic man. He charges that investigators simply walked away because the young woman who witnessed the killing was too afraid to talk.

"I want them to treat minority cases like any other," he continued, "and get results."

In the wake of his son's murder, Rev. Banks has emerged as an activist for scores of unsolved murders. In February 1998, he organized an anti-violence march in NE Portland that brought out hundreds. He began attending the funerals of all young blacks killed in the city. For one of the funerals, he printed up a flyer listing over 150 black murder victims, many still unsolved homicides.

"Let someone kill the mayor's son or daughter, and see how long it stays unsolved," Banks concluded.

Portland Police Public Information Officer Mike Hefley gets furious when he hears such accusations. Hefley worked in the Homicide Division for 14 years before becoming the bureau spokesman, and he insists that the police take all killings seriously.

"I know we don't investigate black killings any differently than any other murder," Hefley says, adding that the black community should accept some blame for the unsolved murders. He believes that community members have salient information, but won't talk to the police. Part of the problem, Hefley says, is that some of the murders are gang-related and witnesses are afraid to talk.

"The police are no more effective than the community will let them be," explains Hefley. "If they don't give us the information to help us solve these crimes, we're at a dead end."

Frustrated by what is viewed as apathy from the police, community members have attempted their own solutions, trying several times to organize support groups for grieving family members. But, as many of the murders are gang-related, the meetings frequently disintegrated into accusations and fighting.

"When I've tried to bring people together," explains Thelma Stone, "it's like, 'Your cousin killed my nephew' or 'my son was killed by your grandson.'"

Despite her grassroots efforts, Stone believes that responsibility for solving these murders remains squarely with the city, a responsibility she thinks is being shunned.

"I grew up in Mississippi, and Oregon is just another name for Mississippi," Stone added. "Blacks get no justice." Two years have passed since her son was murdered and she has not heard about any progress on the case.

"The message coming to our community," says Stone, "is if you kill a black person you'll get away with it."

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