04 May

On police reform, Eric Holder may have pushed Portland ahead of Baltimore

At the end of April, when after five and a half months Loretta Lynch was finally confirmed as U.S. attorney general, it meant the delayed departure of her predecessor, Eric Holder. But before leaving, Holder left something to remember him by to Portland, Seattle and many other U.S. cities, legally phrased keepsakes now illuminated by the flames of Ferguson, Mo., and over the past week, Baltimore.

“The U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.,” wrote Todd Ruger in the National Law Journal, “has filed a record number of criminal police-misconduct cases and aggressively used civil laws to force reform at police departments across the country.” By the department’s calculations, it launched more than twice as many investigations into local police forces in the past five years as in the previous five.

Over his time in the job, often citing his own experience as an African-American man and father, Holder reached consent decrees or out-of-court agreements with police departments and city leaders in cities including New Orleans, Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with federal investigations still going on in Cleveland, Ferguson and Newark, N.J.

And in the middle of 2011, following the deaths of James Chasse and Aaron Campbell, the Department of Justice opened an investigation of the Portland Police Bureau’s use of force in cases involving mental illness. By the end of the following year – federal investigations take a while – the city and the feds had reached an agreement, and last August, an agreement was accepted in federal court, with the condition that the city regularly come into that court to show evidence of progress.

The agreement called for clearer guidelines on police use of deadly force, greater diversity in the police force and quicker resolutions of complaints about police conduct. It created a Community Oversight Advisory Board to monitor the implementation of the reforms.

(Negotiators could not deal with elements of the current police union contract, such as police discipline decisions being submitted to an arbitrator who generally rejects them, or police not being required to speak to investigators for 48 hours after an incident. Then again, we learned this week that Baltimore police don’t have to speak for10 days.)

The agreement didn’t require, but pointed toward, the spreading practice of body cameras on police officers. The idea is currently hung up in the Legislature on the issue of privacy and access to the videotapes, but the city has put aside money for the purchase of some cameras.
The Rev. Leroy Haynes, chairman of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, called the agreement “a total, comprehensive reform of the Portland Police Bureau.” In five years, we might even know if that could be true.

What we do know now is that the issue of police relations with minority communities has risen to a new, inescapable prominence. It’s not only that flames in the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson took over the national airwaves, but that new episodes keep driving the issue: Michael Brown in Ferguson is followed by Eric Garner in New York and now Freddie Gray in Baltimore, a story that began with Gray making eye contact with a police lieutenant and running, and ended with him dead with a severed spine – and now with six Baltimore police officers charged in his homicide.

The Justice Department came to Portland after the killing of Aaron Campbell, an unarmed African American shot down in the midst of a negotiation that seemed to be proceeding. The police chief fired the officer involved, a decision later reversed in arbitration.

Along with new stories repeatedly appearing to drive the controversy, the situation – the reality that an African American male is 21 times more likely to be killed by police than a white male – has intruded into presidential politics. Last week, Hillary Clinton declared, “What we have seen in Baltimore should, and I think does, tear at our soul. From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable… There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.”

Various Republican candidates have called for reform of the criminal justice system and its outsized impact on minorities. One way or another – and some ways are much better than others – the problem has to be addressed all over the country.

It would be heartening to think that Portland, with a push from Eric Holder, might have a head start.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 5/3/15.