By Olivia Olivia, PQ Monthly
A new police contract that was pushed through by Portland City Council has sparked several nights of marches and arrests, pitching local activists against Mayor Charlie Hales and other elected officials. At the heart of the matter is a controversial aspect of the new police contract – namely that officers would be allowed to review body camera footage before writing police reports. Protestors say this would compromise the content and purpose of the body cameras, enabling officers to review and potentially purge footage that portrays them in a negative light.
Protestors demanded that City Council takes their concerns seriously – City Council’s response was to exclude the general public from their meetings twice in one week. On Wednesday, October 12, the City Council voted 3-1 to approve the new contract with the city’s police union, leading to an explosive protest outside and outcry from the public that they had been denied public comment on the unpopular decision. Ten people were arrested, trains and bus lines came to a standstill downtown, and the same police who stood to benefit from the City Council’s decision pepper sprayed the crowd while dressed head to toe in riot gear. Protesters have threatened to sue the mayor over their exclusion to these otherwise public meetings. As the council voted, chants of “Shame on you!” rang outside.
Protesters from Portland’s Don’t Shoot PDX group gathered in tents and camped in front of City Hall walked away with more unresolved concerns – and more demands. On Friday, at the beginning of one of the worst storms the Pacific Northwest has seen in recent years, protesters gathered and marched to Mayor Charlie Hales’ home. By Friday night, nearly a dozen tents pitched on the mayor’s yard.
Protestors were threatening to sue the mayor over their exclusion to these otherwise public meetings,
Hales and other council members defended their actions saying that the city aimed at lowering response times for emergency calls in the city.
JoAnn Hardesty, President of the Portland Chapter of the NAACP, also attended the meetings, upset by the mayor’s decision to exclude the public even if she disagrees with individuals in Don’t Shoot PDX or the tactics at hand. She blamed Hales for preventing public testimony, calling the decision “totally unacceptable.”
Although various local organizations and protest groups disagree with Teresa Raiford – who founded Don’t Shoot PDX with white male residents Hart Noecker and Jessie Sponburg – almost all agree that the contract between the City and the Portland Police Union is a devastating move for communities of color.
Only four years ago, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the City of Portland, alleging improper use-of-force by the Portland Police Bureau against members of a protected class. After an 18-month-long investigation was prompted by the high number of deaths at the hands of the Portland Police. The Department of Justice came to the conclusion that linked pattern between the victims was that they all dealt with mental illness – but the victims, including Kendra James, Keaton Otis, Aaron Campbell, Darryel Ferguson, James Jahar Perez – represent another protected class. While African Americans make up between 6 and 7 percent of the Portland population, they are consistently stopped, arrested, convicted, and killed at much higher rates. The overrepresentation of Black residents in what the DOJ labeled a mental illness problem has remained a sore subject with activists, who claim that the issue may have been misdiagnosed.
Gregory Robert McKelvey, a 23-year-old law student, and activist who organizes with Don’t Shoot PDX, issued an open letter to Mayor Charlie Hales, stating that he showed up to testify at City Hall and felt that he had been denied access to that right, along with so many others. “We wanted to be in Council chambers, but within just a few minutes you moved the meeting and locked out the public,” he writes.
“We were not allowed to testify, and new were not given a voice. The only thing we were allowed to do was be beaten. I handed out waters and snacks to your officers. I felt bad for them. It must feel wrong to be ordered to beat children out of City Hall. I also care about them. I care about you. I care about our entire city.”
He ended with a common refrain echoed as the City of Portland has undergone investigation for its police brutality. “I just want justice,” he said.
“[The contract] reflects the narrow focus on money rather than vision and does not reflect the will or voice of the community,” said JoAnn Hardesty in a statement. “There are many things wrong with this contract.
The Portland City Auditor’s Office wrote of their concerns with the voting process as well. “We are concerned that the veil of secrecy has enveloped the proposed contract,” the public statement read, “and its creation stands to do long-term harm to the City’s efforts to build a stronger police accountability system.” Notably, their statement also points out that the current collective bargaining agreement with the Portland Police Association does not expire until June 30, 2017. The Auditor’s Office did show praise for one aspect of the contract, which will remove the 48-hour restriction on interviewing officers in administrative investigations. “The Auditor’s Office has consistently maintained that the 48-hour rule undermined the community’s faith in the City’s police accountability system. In officer-involved shootings, outside experts hired by the City have noted that the delays in obtaining contemporaneous officer accounts of critical incidents have led to lengthy and diminished community confidence.”
Today, that community confidence appears to be far from where city officials might want it to be.