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