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You Can't Prove It

Racial Profiling Committee Hits Stalemate

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The mayor's racial profiling committee seems to be reaching a stalemate after the police union hired a statistical consultant who says there's no proof cops are engaging in the practice.

There has been much talk over issues such as whether racial profiling exists, but little action on what to do about it since the committee was originally formed in January 2007.

The committee was originally asked to evaluate traffic and pedestrian stop data; to recommend policy changes for eliminating racial profiling; to monitor the implementation of policy recommendations; to facilitate a dialog between police and the community; and to monitor the implementation of the police bureau's plan to eliminate racial profiling. Sixteen months later, the committee says it hopes to finally make policy recommendations to the city council by August.

"I think it's time for this committee to start producing results, or we need to try a different tact," says City Commissioner Sam Adams, who has talked about the issue on the mayoral campaign trail. "My patience is wearing very thin."

Still, Portland Police Association boss Robert King seems in no hurry to push the committee forward, and threw another wrench in the works last Thursday, April 17, by bringing along Kansas-based consultant Brian Withrow.

Withrow said there is no way to prove racial profiling is happening, based on his analysis of 68,107 traffic stops from 2006. The traffic stop data shows that African American drivers were 3.4 times more likely than whites to be pulled over, and less likely to be carrying contraband—but Withrow argued that more information is needed to provide proof of an officer's motive. He said asking an officer to rate the seriousness of an alleged infraction before making a stop might be one way to do that, so the community can ask, "Did African American drivers get stopped for relatively minor things but get tickets?"

The presentation raised the hackles of some on the racial profiling group. Co-chair Jo Ann Bowman, executive director of Oregon Action, said she feels like the traffic stop data gives a "snapshot of what is happening at a given time," adding, "as the community, if you see these numbers, how could you not come to the conclusion that something is going on?"

In its second year, the committee appeared to be rehashing the same arguments that came up when Mayor Potter first raised the issue of racial profiling at a council session in March 2006, telling Somali immigrant Kayse Jama that his being stopped four times by police in 18 months "smacked of racism." When asked if there could be alternate explanations for Jama's treatment, Potter said if something "walks like a duck, quacks like a duck...."

Potter later apologized for "taking sides without knowing all the facts," then initiated a series of five community listening sessions, which ultimately led to the formation of the committee.

Commissioner Adams, meanwhile, says he is encouraged the union appears open to analyzing the data, and suggests expert consultants might sit down with the committee members to go over the data and methodology together. Others are less optimistic.

"As long as our racial profiling discussions are based on one side insisting it exists, and one side insisting it doesn't, then we're not going to move forward," says John Campbell, the consultant who compiled a report last September on the city's controversial Drug-Free Zones, showing African Americans were more likely to be excluded for the same crimes than whites.

Campbell's report lambasted the police bureau's "lack of intellectual curiosity," after none of the theories proffered by the police bureau for the disparities panned out in the statistical analysis. Now, he says even if King could prove beyond doubt that there was no such thing as racial profiling, there would still be another problem to address.

"There is a measurable and stark division in community distrust of the police between whites and African Americans," he says. "I think that is the problem, and that is where we really need to be focusing our attention."

Bowman says it feels like the committee is going back to the beginning of its work. "King knew the outcome of Withrow's report would support his position," she says. "Of course you can go and hire a certified smart person to stand up for your position, but the police union could have spent those dollars better by talking to people on the streets who have experienced racial profiling for themselves."

"The committee has been in a state of flux from the beginning," says King. " Portland police do not engage in racial profiling, which of course calls the very purpose of the committee into question.

"Nevertheless, the committee members have exchanged a lot of information and perhaps we are listening to one another better than we were," King continues. "So the process has not been wasted."

"We're moving forward," says Maria Rubio, the mayor's public safety policy director. "The data has always been inconclusive on this issue, but this was identified as an issue by city council."

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