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Going Over Vera's Head

Community Leaders Give Up on City Hall

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by Joshua Cinelli

Over the past week, Mayor Vera Katz has had plenty of time to muse over the Rose Festival activities--but she's been wholly absent from the continuing discussions about Kendra James. More than a month ago James, a black, 21-year-old recovering crack addict, was pulled over after her boyfriend rolled through a stop light in North Portland. After her boyfriend was pulled from the car, James allegedly tried to crawl into the driver's seat and peel away from the scene. A rookie officer leveled his gun and fired one shot into her back.

Over the past few weeks, there have been numerous vigils and rallies. But now, as the grief recedes, what has been left is a sincere desire for new laws to ensure more police accountability. At rallies, both residents from North Portland and black community leaders have pointed out that the current police procedures, training, and protocols all but immunize police officers from any responsibility for on-duty shootings.

But unlike past appeals for police accountability, when activists and loved ones petitioned the mayor's office to re-examine these errant police procedures, this time the appeals for justice have simply bypassed City Hall and are going straight to the state capital.

Led by the Albina Ministerial Alliance, last Wednesday a group of roughly 100 people traveled to Salem to press state legislators. Over the past three years, there have been three controversial uses of deadly force by Portland officers against minorities. But the shooting of James has energized a grassroots push to topple the statutes as they now stand. Moreover, the decision to take their concerns to the legislature and not the mayor's office emphasizes the belief that past appeals to Katz for justice have gone unrecognized.

Following the James shooting, Mayor Katz announced that she would host a "public forum." That meeting was originally scheduled for early June, but has been delayed until July 1.

Standing in chambers at the state capitol, Reverend Roy Tate from Albina Ministry bellowed that the police too often hide behind the wording in the current law, which justifies a shooting if the officers "believe" their lives were in danger. "We are afraid for our lives, as well," Tate added.

State Senator Avel Gordly reinforced Rev. Tate's sentiment, saying that the delegation on Wednesday was important to demonstrate support for two different bills currently in the state senate. One is House bill 3426, introduced by a retired Portland police lieutenant and state representative, Jeff Barker. Arguing that the law of deadly force is terribly outdated, he has presented a bill that would change state law to specify that deadly force could be used only in serious crimes when a fleeing suspect has threatened officers or others.

The other legislature is Senate Bill 30, which would allow a member of the public to petition a judge for the release of records from the Grand Jury proceedings. Currently, the Grand Jury proceedings are closed to the public--a sore point with the James case, where the officer responsible for James' death was quickly exonerated from any criminal liability after a three-day, closed-door hearing.

"The playing field needs to be leveled out," said Dan Handelman from Copwatch. "Right now, the deck is stacked against the victim, because the DA and the police have a strong working relationship."

Pastor Leroy Haynes told the crowd that with the way the law is set up right now, the District Attorney could indict a ham sandwich. Police Chief Kroeker has called for an FBI investigation into the Kendra James shooting, but has not disclosed whether the results would be made public.

(In the James case, after petitioning from the Albina Ministerial Alliance, DA Michael Schrunk has complied with a request for the public to review the records from the Grand Jury proceedings.)

Robert King, a Portland sergeant who heads the Portland Police Association, the rank-and-file police union, said the union has concerns that reforms would impede an officer's rights. He said that the PPA will challenge the proposed changes.

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