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Under the Looking Glass

State Lawmaker Has His Eye on Police Accountability

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THERE'S A STORY that North Portland Representative Lew Frederick likes to tell when he's out traveling the state, pushing support for reforms in the wake of some eight police shootings since last January. It goes something like this:

There's this 12-year-old boy Frederick knows, a kid who, when he was small, always said he wanted to be a police officer. Then one day, the boy walks up to Frederick and says, "You always told me that if there's a problem, that I should call the police. If I call the police, will they shoot me?"

"I told him 'no,'" says Frederick, the Oregon State Legislature's only African American. "And this is a kid who knows police officers in his own neighborhood."

The story rolls right off his tongue, and it's no surprise. These days, he's been telling it a lot. This month Frederick finally put forward a long-promised package of bills meant to renew the community's faith in police by making officers more accountable when things go wrong.

Among the proposals:

• To increase impartiality, outside agencies, like the attorney general's office, would investigate use-of-force cases, not local police agencies and district attorneys. In addition, officers would be tested for drugs, including steroids, after incidents that cause death or injury. (Portland recently tried to bargain this into its latest police contract, but was rebuffed.)

• The word "reasonable" would become part of guidelines for using force, with task forces convened to define what "reasonable" means.

• The state would pay for beefed-up training, focusing in particular on how officers confront people in crisis.

• And police agencies would be forced to examine how they stop and interact with people of different races, how they recruit officers, and what kind of outreach they offer to minority communities.

"There's no question about why I'm doing it," Frederick says, stressing that he doesn't see the measures as "anti-police." "That's not the case at all. But the trust level has been severely attacked and these are attempts to actually address that."

Whether the bills gain traction remains a question. With Salem facing a $3 billion-plus deficit, budget battles will sap much of the legislature's energy early in the session and make it hard for any bill that costs money to break through. Frederick doesn't have cost figures for his bills, but money might be required for added police training or to help fund investigations.

Frederick must also overcome apathy from lawmakers who might see police accountability as one more Portland-only issue, and not one that affects the rest of the state.

But while he acknowledges those obstacles, he's optimistic—and with good reason. For one, he's obtained co-sponsorships from some top Democrats. Tina Kotek, serving as co-speaker pro tempore, has signed onto bills calling for speedier, stronger use-of-force investigations and a new standard for defining when using force is reasonable.

"Anytime you start talking about the state directing local law enforcement, it'll create a lot of division," Kotek says. "He's being very responsive to the needs of the Portland community. But it's important for the rest of the state to have that discussion."

To make his case, Frederick's been barnstorming the state, talking with lawmakers and close to a dozen district attorneys, including Multnomah County DA Mike Schrunk (twice). In those meetings, he mentions places like Klamath Falls and Ontario and Jefferson County, places where, he says, it's Latinos and American Indians who feel marginalized.

"I'm getting phone calls from across the state," Frederick says, "because they have the same kind of concern: No one's really talking with us about the kinds of things we're dealing with."

Back in Portland, advocates are paying close attention. Bills have been proposed before, they note, and bills have died.

"The political climate to deal with issues related to the police is always difficult," says Reverend Chuck Currie. "That said, it's right to move forward with these bills, hold hearings on them and hold public discussions on the ways we can improve our relationship with law enforcement."

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