25 Aug

Feds bring Constitution to the streets of Ferguson — and Portland

Portland didn’t have long nights of mass violence in its streets. It didn’t have reporters from around the world broadcasting live from the city center in the midst of chanting and tear gas, and occasionally getting arrested for it. Unlike Ferguson, Mo., Portland didn’t see its city name turned into national shorthand expression for a list of urban problems long enough to come with footnotes.

But in its immediate past, Portland did have a policing problem that needed federal intervention. That experience – part of a federal effort two decades long and intensified during the Obama administration – shows why U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder headed for Ferguson last week, and why the relationship between police departments and their citizens has to be a national issue.

The goal, Holder wrote recently in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is “bridging persistent gaps between law enforcement officials and the communities we serve.”

The episodes are generally set off by a police shooting of an unarmed African American, followed by an explosion of protest louder than the gunfire. In Ferguson, as television watchers around the world now know, it was Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who either did or did not attack a police officer, and has now been the subject of three different autopsies.

In Portland, in 2010, it was Aaron Campbell, shot in the midst of an extended stake-out by a police sniper who thought Campbell was reaching for something. Last month, after four and a half years, two-week suspensions for three police officers were upheld; the city’s firing of the officer who fired the shot was overturned by an arbitrator and is still before the Oregon Court of Appeals.

But long before the tortuous process of police discipline, arbitration and appeal ran its course, the U.S. Justice Department moved to investigate the Portland Police Bureau. After a 15-month probe, the Justice Department found a “pattern or practice of excessive force against people with mental illness.”

After months of negotiations between the city, the Justice Department and the police union, the outcome is still uncertain; a reform proposal is before U.S. District Judge Michael Simon, who has said he wants to hear public reaction. Portland’s not where it needs to be yet, but it’s moving in a way it wouldn’t have without the feds.

Over the last years, the U.S. Justice Department has looked into a range of local police departments, including Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Seattle, Portland, New Orleans and now Ferguson. It’s an affirmation that the Constitution reaches to the streets.

The process of reform is slow and bumpy. The mayor of New Orleans has gone to court to claim that the city can’t afford the policing changes that the feds have ordered. This spring, more than 100 Seattle officers sued, claiming that the new use-of-force rules are keeping them from doing their job.

Last week, Seattle asked for a nine-month extension on installing the computer system to oversee use of force ordered by the Justice Department. According to The Seattle Times, U.S. Judge James Robart sounded dubious – citing the situation in Ferguson. As to the officers’ lawsuit, he commented, “To those individuals, I simply say: ‘Get over it. The train has left the station. It’s not going to turn around. The good old days are not coming back.’ ”

In Los Angeles, the process began in 2001, and the changes have been extensive and widely recognized, increasing diversity and community outreach. “The consent decree was the best thing ever to happen to the L.A.P.D.,” Richard E. Drooyan, a former president of the Los Angeles police commission, told The New York Times last week. “It forced changes, and now this is a much better police force.”

Last Monday, Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old African American with serious mental issues, was shot to death in a stop by Los Angeles police. There have been wide protests, but the Los Angeles streets have not exploded.

Anybody has to concede that the world looks different, and dangerous, through the windshield of a police car. But a city also has to be aware of how its police look to the people on the other side of the window.

“Sometimes people think a choice has to be made between lawful, respectful policing and effective policing,” Attorney General Holder told the Times recently. “I think they are mutually dependent.”

Whether or not a city has CNN and tear gas in its streets at the moment, it had better hope that they are. From Portland to Ferguson, the feds are watching – and they should be.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 8/24/14

25 Aug

Obama should sound off on Ferguson

Largely because of years of non-stop vituperation, a lot of Americans have stopped listening to Barack Obama. But there are moments when Americans need to hear from their president.

A time when an American city goes up in flames every night, and it seems police power has gotten separated from the people it’s supposed to protect, the president needs to speak. Obama probably can’t calm the streets of Ferguson, or bring together the two angrily opposed sides. But there are points he can make, and that only he can make.

Making clear that there is never a right to violent disruption, Obama can declare that Michael Brown’s death will be taken seriously. The U.S. Justice Department is already investigating it as a civil rights violation. Obama can’t and shouldn’t promise a verdict, or an indictment, but he can assure Americans that the death, and the issue, won’t be ignored.

And as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, Obama should speak to the relationship between the people and their police. It’s his Defense Department stocking local police forces with armored vehicles, and often the federal government setting standards for police training and procedures.

A president doesn’t need to solve all our problems. But he does need to address them.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 8/23/14

24 Aug

Give a president a break, and let him take one

The current complaint about President Obama is that he goes on vacation and plays golf, instead of staying in the Oval Office and fixing everything. The complaints are mostly from people who think that when he’s in the Oval Office he doesn’t actually fix anything, evoking the old complaint about the resort hotel: The food is terrible, and the portions are too small.

This complaint follows a pattern for every recent president. George W. Bush spent hundreds of days of  his term on his ranch in Texas, largely clearing brush. Republicans complained that Bill Clinton not only played lots of golf, but cheated.

George H.W. Bush frequently ran up to his vacation house in Maine, where he played a lot of golf s quickly as possible, trying to break the one-hour round. Democrats complained that Ronald Reagan spent too much time at his ranch outside Santa Barbara, riding horses. Gerald Ford not only played a lot of golf, he was a positive danger to spectators when he did.

Admittedly, the job has changed considerably since John Adams used to go up to Massachusetts for months at a time, without being harassed by email. As all presidents point out, the responsibilities follow them everywhere, to mountain trails or the 14th green. The responsibilities also mean that if a president doesn’t get some relief and relaxation, he might make some very strange decisions.

We have, after all, had some recent presidents who were unfailingly diligent, constantly at work, hardly ever relaxing their grip on power: Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson.

Maybe that’s not so good either.     

23 Aug

A different kind of Portland food truck drives to fill the hunger of summer

In summer, Portland steadily expands its position as one the food truck and food cart capitals of the world. The city’s mobile cuisine extends from Belizean chicken and rice to Korean tacos to Maine lobster rolls, and wheels are becoming as central to our local menu as Cuisinarts.

Then there’s the St. Vincent de Paul Bluebird. Monday noon, an old school bus painted the color of a welcoming sky was parked by the Town Center Station Apartments, across from Clackamas Town Center. The bus, with a compressed kitchen that might not quality for a food truck reality TV series, served up waffles, oatmeal and fresh blueberries to a couple hundred kids and mothers, including a lot of folks who when school is out are what you might call available for lunch.

“A lot of folks who don’t get a summer lunch,” explained Charles Ashcraft, watching over two huge pots containing a classroom‘s worth of oatmeal, “are getting one today.”

A few yards from the Bluebird, a summer food line reached from the apartment complex’s courtyard out to the street, and had been forming for more than an hour before distribution opened. The tables were stocked with produce – potatoes, squash, oranges – from the Oregon Food Bank and 1,800 pounds of granola from Bob’s Red Mill. They were staffed by volunteers from Gracepointe Church in Milwaukie, and by some past and present clients now looking to help out.

Sylvia Herrera, who also volunteers to help other Latino parents at Milwaukie High School, got some translation help from her daughter Alexandra, an entering freshman planning to be a flight attendant.

“My mom says it helps deal with the hunger in children. It’s more energy for them,” voices Alexandra. “Especially in summer, they need a little help with the food.”

At a time when significant numbers of American children get half their calories in school – lunch, breakfast, snack – the summer school shutdown sharply interrupts nutrition for millions. And since families have single food budgets, the student cutoff ripples through the plates of parents and younger siblings. According to a study cited by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., hunger rises 34.2 percent during summer for families with schoolchildren, even for family members a long way from math tests.

Federal summer food programs, requiring a location and a way for kids to get there, reach only a small fraction of the millions of kids who normally get free or reduced-price school lunches. Increasingly, instead of waiting for kids to find their way to food in summer, hunger workers are exploring ways to bring the food to the kids.

That’s what brings the St. Vincent de Paul Bluebird food bus, and the tables covered with cabbage and potatoes, to Town Center Station Apartments, home to a significant number of kids from the nearby schools. The program’s been going on for five weeks this summer, with another week to go. According to Deborah Mason, nutrition program director for the Clackamas Service Center, attendance has been rising by about 15 or 20 a week.

“It gets pretty exciting,” she says, “that we’re actually feeding kids.” Gesturing toward the lines moving past the tables, mothers and elderly clients stacking backs of onions and bread on strollers, sit-down walkers and motorized carts, Mason points out, “You see what people are carrying. Not a lot of these people want to carry that on three buses to get home.”

She hopes to expand the idea to other locations next summer, and it could also expand beyond Clackamas. Other programs are considering bringing the idea to apartment complexes in Portland.

Monday, the Bluebird, helped by a $35,000 grant from Walmart, is doing a thriving business at Town Center Station. Like other, more fashionable Portland food trucks, it changes its location daily, spending most of its time out in more rural parts of the metro area. “As you get farther out,” explains Paul Kresek of St. Vincent de Paul, “the need diminishes slightly, but the resources drop off sharply,”

Inside the bus Monday, a mother reaches out her hands to her four- and six-year-old daughters, saying a blessing for them all before turning to the waffles and oatmeal. Another mother, sitting with her 10-year-old son who has a great deal to say about animals he’s admired this summer, talks about the benefits of the program.

“It’s wonderful,” she says, noting that it’s her first visit. “Sometimes you have a lot of bills you have to spend. Whatever is left, you have to make it.”

And with a little help, make it through the summer.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 8/20/14.

19 Aug

The names and places change, but for the US, genocide is always the enemy

Even if the United States were not heavily responsible for the bloody chaos that is Iraq today, we would need to act to try to prevent the bloodbath being carried out by the Islamic State, or ISIS. The 40,000 religious minority members surrounded and left to die on a mountaintop are just one example of ISIS ethnic cleansing. We have also seen slaughters of Christians and Shiite Muslims. Human Rights Watch reports mass executions, beheadings and crucifixions.

In the 1990s, the United States acted, too late, against genocide in the Balkans, but succeeded in stopping it. The United States did not act against the slaughter in Rwanda, a failure that Bill Clinton called the greatest regret of his presidency.

Acting doesn’t mean troops on the ground; we tried that once. But we have the capacity, with air power, military supplies and humanitarian assistance, to affect the situation and strengthen the opposition. We can strengthen the defense of the Kurdish area, which so far is serving as a safe haven.

Anywhere in the world, the United States would be moved to move against wholesale slaughter of innocents. In Iraq, which 11 years after the U.S. invasion is still struggling with the resulting violent anarchy, we have a particular responsibility.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 8/16/14

19 Aug

If Robin Williams can kill himself, so can Oregonians — and more and more, they do

The photograph is the young Robin Williams, with multicolored overalls, brown hair looking like it was cut with nail clippers, eyes alight with what can only be called life.

Last week, it was taped up in a hallway at Portland’s Lines for Life, operator of the local suicide prevention hot line, which on Tuesday received a record 88 calls, about twice the typical traffic.

The spike was driven not so much by people staring at a gun and their own hopelessness as by relatives and friends terrified about someone else’s desperation.

“They suddenly realized this can happen to anybody,” explains David Westbrook, chief operating officer at Lines for Life. “It happened to Robin Williams,” someone who looked to be on top of the world, with the fun seeming to bubble out in all directions.

“If it can happen to Robin, it can certainly happen to my brother.”

In Oregon, the chances of it happening are higher. Suicide rates run higher in the West in general – rugged reluctance to seek help? Looser family connections? – and Oregon’s rates, say the Lines for Life folks, typically run around 8th to 10th nationally. According to the Oregon Health Authority report “Violent Deaths in Oregon: 2012,” that year saw 110 homicides but 717 suicides, and Oregon’s suicide rate has been rising – especially among young people.

Recounts Dwight Holton, CEO of Lines for Life, “Last week” – the week when the famous, wealthy and beloved Robin Williams decided he could no longer endure his life – “10 to 15 Oregonians took their lives. That includes one or two teenagers and one or two veterans. We’ve got to do better.”

Lines for Life uses a range of strategies to push back the dark. Its telephone lines (503-972-3456; 800-278-8255) are maintained by 150 trained volunteers, each committed to at least one four-hour stint a week. The conversations can go on for a long time, and when the call is about somebody else, the volunteers try to set up a three-way conversation.

“There’s sometimes a misperception that people don’t want to talk,” says Westbrook. “If someone’s still alive, you’re catching them at the right point.”

Every caller is different, every conversation is different. Tom Parker, the agency’s director of communications, tells of a caller holding a handgun, which he planned to use at the end of the call. The volunteer, an Iraq veteran, asked him about the gun, and talked about his own interest in firearms. The conversation went on, and at the end, the volunteer could hear the bullets being unloaded.

Veterans’ suicides are a scandal across the country, and Oregon has one of the country’s highest rates. Veterans are 8 percent of the Oregon population, and 27 percent of Oregon suicides. Oregon is one of just a few states without a major military base, cutting down on support for veterans, and an outsized proportion of the state’s veterans live in rural areas that can be distant from any services.

It’s part of what’s beyond Lines for Life outreach strategies. Since many suicides are preceded by unsuccessful attempts, and by desperate efforts to seek help, the agency works outreach through some hospital emergency rooms. For every suicide, there may be five to 20 unsuccessful attempts.

(Men and women, it seems, attempt suicide at similar rates. Men complete it more often, largely because they’re more likely to use handguns.)

With suicides among Oregonians between 10 and 24 rising sharply recently – from 54 in 2010 to an estimated 90 in 2013 – Lines for Life has some local projects for, in Holton’s words, “improving school climate.” That means training faculty members and student volunteers to recognize problems, and to learn to talk to people in difficulties.

To push back the darkness, we need to talk about things we still find uncomfortable or embarrassing or shameful. To help people move back from the edge, we need to talk openly about mental issues, and make connections.

“Forty-five years ago, we didn’t talk about cancer,” says Tom Parker. “We didn’t talk about addiction, except to say you’re a bum. Then along came Betty Ford.”

A high-profile celebrity suicide, says the research, can spur other suicides, what experts call contagion. But maybe, as the photo hanging in the Lines of Life hallway and the spike in its phone traffic suggest, it can also spur conversations that can push away the gun, or the pills, or the belt hanging from a doorway in a California mansion.

And maybe produce fewer occasions with people wondering, afterward, what they might have done differently.

“It’s such a riddle,” says Tom Parker.

“It’s the saddest funeral.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/17/14.

16 Aug

Can we interest your local police department in a nice wheeled combat vehicle?

The violence on the streets of Ferguson, Mo. – both the original violence against the teenage Michael Brown and the battles in the streets on following nights – brings up questions that land on the streets of every city. The recent Justice Department investigation of people killed in encounters with Portland police shows just how close it can get.

But the photos of local police on the streets, wearing what looks like armor and backed by ordinance and equipment reminding veterans of the streets of Fallujah, has underlined the technology that complicates the situation more than helping it.

As Mike Francis reported in The Oregonian Friday, the up-armoring of local police departments has been bolstered by the Defense Department open-handedly passing out outmoded military equipment. The list includes mine-resistant vehicles going to Clackamas, Baker and Polk counties, an armored truck going to Malheur county, and wheeled combat vehicles going to Lane and Marion counties.

It’s hard to speak about specific needs, but you might wonder about increasing the military capacity of the Clackamas county commissioner, or whether Marion County really expects armed rebellion from state workers upset about PERS changes.

It’s tempting to deal with unsettled situations with massive force. Examples run from Oregon dealing the gang troubles by sending the National Guard into Northeast Portland in the 1980s to Texas Gov. Rick Perry sending the National Guard to the border to deal with waves of unaccompanied minors. In 1999, I saw the streets of Seattle turn into a wash of police lines, rubber bullets and tear gas for the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization summit – a response that the then-mayor of Seattle recently said may have been a mistake.

When you equip and mobilize police (or National Guardsmen) like soldiers, you make them feel like soldiers, which can make them regard the people they’re dealing with as the enemy. Everybody ends up escalating.

There are hardly any policing problems that are improved by an armored personnel carrier.

13 Aug

Oregon restructures its universities; now it just has to support them

Until the Oregon State Board of Higher Education slipped quietly out of existence this summer, Matt Donegan spent five years on it, the last three as chairman. But talking about higher education and economic development recently, the first institution he mentioned was the University of Washington.

When he listens to other Oregon businessmen talk about higher ed, he “can hear a lot of envy of what UW has been able to accomplish.”

Seeing how that’s happened, of course, doesn’t take five years close study of the Oregon system. “It doesn’t seem that Oregon was looking ahead the way Washington was looking ahead,” says Donegan. While Washington invested in its research universities “In Oregon, we did not place those bets.”

Oregon being Oregon, its response to higher ed disinvestment was to restructure, and soon each of the state’s seven universities will have its own institutional board, under the new Higher Education Coordinating Commission. With last week’s sudden departure of University of Oregon President Michael Gottfredson, the new system is in line for its first workout, as the first job cited for the new boards is to hire (and fire) their presidents. In academic terms, Gottfredson’s departure is pretty abrupt, and comes quite soon after the new board acquired the official power to decide who was president.

The new boards’ broader job, of course, is to bolster their universities.

Donegan, who helped shape the process – driven largely by the urgent demands of University of Oregon supporters, a confrontation that led to the firing of UO President Richard Lariviere by the now departed state board – is hopeful about the new arrangement will work.

“Now that we’re decentralized,” he forecasts, “you’re going to increase advocacy sevenfold.”

If the Legislature, historically not a hugely hospitable place for higher education, starts hearing from all the members of all the new boards, it could warm the atmosphere a bit.
In Salem, “You do have some champions” on higher ed, notes Donegan. “(Sen.) Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) has been very thoughtful. There’s (Rep.) Peter Buckley (D-Ashland). I won’t say it’s a terribly long list.

“That will change. Now there will be 100 board members, the kind of people very involved with legislative prospects.”

Of course, the 100 new board members will also be seeking to figure out their boards’ roles, as will the HECC. Serving on a variety of public and private boards, Donegan notes an inevitable tendency to micromanage.

He cites the warning of Oregon State President Ed Ray, a longtime skeptic, recalling his experiences with the Ohio State board: micromanaging, asking the wrong questions, and caring mostly about football.

The risk of “mission creep,” Donegan points out, applies to both the local boards and to HECC itself, whose role he sees largely as a “tiebreaker,” focusing on budgeting and strategic planning.

Of course, the power of the budget can extend virtually anywhere.

Still, Donegan feels that the reorganization is a promising direction for the Oregon system – although it did mean that Oregon spent the last three years absorbed by governance while other state systems were focusing on strategies for on-line and distance education.

And Oregon has a ways to go, in a situation where the state’s businesses have a long-established practice of importing talent from Seattle, from the Bay Area and from back East. Washington has had a strategy of using its higher education system as an engine for economy, both in research and workforce creation, and under the best of circumstances Oregon would be a long time catching up.

Oregon is, Donegan notes, sitting at the end of a hundred years of decisions on the issue. Some things, like the location of its universities, can’t be changed, and some would require a considerable change of attitude and commitment.

And right now, for the third time since 2009, the state needs a new president for what University of Oregon supporters insistently refer to as the state’s flagship institution.

“I don’t pretend (decentralization) is a substitute for funding,” says Donegan, “or placing good bets, or having a good vision of where the future is going.”

Or for a solid realization of just how important a strong higher education system is to both the economy and the opportunities of a 21st century state.

“What Oregon needs now,” he insists, “is to say, year in and year out, we’re going to make higher ed a priority.

“We can continue to import people from back East, people from the Bay Area. We’ve had success doing that. But we need to provide opportunity here.

“These are our kids we’re talking about.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, Sunday, 8/10/14.