By Executive Director David Fidanque
The death of Michael Brown followed by weeks of demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, has highlighted that race still divides us as a nation – especially in the way our criminal laws are enforced.
For most white Americans, sitting safely in their homes watching the events in Ferguson unfold like a reality TV show, the drama was a stark reminder that each of our communities could be just one incident away from lighting a powder keg of racial tension and fear that is just under the surface.
For people of color, many of whom experience every day the disparate impact of the way that police officers are deployed and do their jobs, the death of yet another unarmed African American young man has intensified the resolve to eliminate racial profiling and other discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system.
Ferguson has also highlighted the increasing militarization of local police – especially in their response to public demonstrations critical of their actions.
This renewed national conversation about police practices is timely because all of these issues are present in here in Oregon.
In 2012, when the U.S. Department of Justice released the findings of its investigation of the Portland Police Bureau for civil rights violations and use of excessive force on persons with real or perceived mental illness, they noted that many in communities of color here believe the Bureau engages in bias-based policing. The Bureau’s own data on traffic stops shows that African Americans and Latinos are stopped and searched at a significantly higher rate than whites.
Also, like the situation with Michael Brown, the DOJ investigation noted “there is a deep-seated concern” among minority communities that “PPB does not provide timely access to medical care following the use of deadly force.”
Changing this dynamic is challenging but important work that this ACLU affiliate has been engaged in for more than two decades.
We have been in the forefront of efforts to push state and local law enforcement to routinely collect data on their interactions with people stopped by police officers, including information on race and ethnicity of the individuals stopped, the reason for the stop, whether there was a search, whether something was found and the ultimate enforcement action taken by the officer (if any).
Some of the largest law enforcement agencies in the state are collecting this data but much more is needed, including increased and reliable state funding for independent analysis of the data. For too long, Oregon law enforcement officials have strongly opposed collecting stop and search data unless it is voluntary, but pressure is mounting for state legislation that would impose this requirement.
We have also worked to reform police use of force policies to put greater emphasis on defusing police encounters rather than escalating them. We have pushed for more restrictions on the use of Tasers, while supporting their use as an alternative to deadly force. We helped get Oregon law changed to allow for dash cams in police cars. And, we are working to change the law again to allow for body-cams – as long as there are policies to protect privacy rights and to prevent them from becoming yet another surveillance tool. This technology has the potential to increase police accountability and decrease incidents of police misconduct, including excessive use of force.
With your support, we will continue all of this important work in Oregon - and nationwide – until we truly achieve the promise of equal justice for all.