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Racial Stop Gap

Traffic Stops for "Driving While Black" Are Still a Portland Problem

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IN EARLY JUNE, the US Justice Department launched a high-profile investigation into whether the Portland Police Bureau has engaged in a pattern of civil rights abuses.

But the inquiry is focused on the mentally ill. It explicitly leaves out scrutiny of racial discrimination by officers—despite pleas from social justice advocates and statistics that clearly hint at cont- inuing concerns.

Should the feds have listened? By one measure, the answer is yes. In the most recent data compiled by the bureau, African Americans accounted for 14.6 percent of traffic stops in Portland, even though they make up six percent of the population.

And now comes a civil case, expected to be filed this week, that offers a striking glimpse at how one of these allegedly discriminatory traffic stops can unfold.

Jason Sutherland was driving a cousin's Lexus from his job as a Janus Youth counselor last December 26 when he saw a police cruiser pull out and follow him. Sutherland says he signaled a few turns, and then pulled into his driveway at SE 87th and Lincoln. He was almost to his door when Officer Royce Curtiss called out to see his ID.

"I said, 'Sure, officer, if you can tell me why," says Sutherland, who is black. "I was thinking this was racial profiling. I don't see any other reasons than that he looked at me and thought I was suspicious."

The police report says Curtiss worried the car was stolen. He ran the license plates, and dispatch said the car was clear. But when Sutherland was "evasive and refused to cooperate with very basic questions" the officer's suspicion grew of "who he was and what he was doing at this house." After asking twice again for Sutherland's ID, Curtiss handcuffed him.

Eventually, another officer knocked on Sutherland's door. Sutherland's girlfriend emerged, enraged and asking why her boyfriend was handcuffed. Curtiss freed Sutherland and cited him for failing to signal a turn. That charge was dismissed Friday, June 24, when Curtiss didn't turn up in court to defend it. Sutherland says he plans to file suit, alleging the traffic stop was patent racial profiling.

"It doesn't appear that the officer knew who was in the car until after it was parked," responds police spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson, encouraging anyone who feels they've been profiled to call the Independent Police Review (IPR) office.

Racial profiling has been such a hot button issue that Portland launched a broad plan to address it in 2009. Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman notes small successes in reducing tension—like requiring officers to hand out business cards upon request. But he said it's still "disconcerting" and worthy of review, noting that the IPR has affirmed only one "disparate treatment" complaint in its nine years.

Handelman, meanwhile, was one of those advocates making the case to the feds.

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