Expert criticizes Portland police response on racial equity: ‘We need different tools’

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While the Portland City Council reviews racial equity recommendations from an ad hoc panel, some police and city officials last week suggested the Police Department is already taking appropriate action to address the panel’s concerns.

But an academic expert on law enforcement said those responses “are what you’d expect” from a police department that “fancies itself as a progressive department” while ignoring critical aspects of the racial equity report.

The City Council held a workshop to give the Police Department an opportunity to respond to the recommendations from the Racial Equity Steering Committee. In that 90-minute discussion, Police Chief Frank Clark outlined what he sees as the actions the department is already taking that address the committee’s recommendations.

City Manager Jon Jennings also told councilors the Police Department is already doing things that accomplish changes sought by the committee.

“We think it’s important for staff to be able to really articulate some of the things we already do that were talked about in the final report,” Jennings told councilors on July 27.

University of Southern Maine assistant professor Brendan McQuade.

But Brendan McQuade, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine, said the steering committee’s recommendations took two paths: procedural justice reforms and substantive justice reforms. The difference, he said, is that substantive justice makes recommendations about fundamentally changing the way criminal justice operates, while procedural justice reforms are more about policy or poorly implemented policy.

Things like dissolving the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee to create a stronger oversight board, or no longer having police respond to mental health calls, are more substantive, he said, while suggestions about police training are more procedural.

“What (Clark) does is point to areas where the Portland Police Department has been implementing the type of procedural reform we’ve talked about in the past 10 years,” McQuade said. “What he ignores is that there are some recommendations for reducing the scope and mission of the Police Department.”

One racial equity recommendation, for example, was that the city adopt a crisis response system used in Eugene, Oregon, known as Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS. It is a mental health intervention program where nonviolent mental health 9-1-1 calls are responded to by medical and mental health counselors instead of police. Following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis last summer, hundreds of cities across the country have started looking into implementing similar programs.

Clark said Portland police already use a behavioral health unit that is nationally recognized to respond to mental health calls. He said the city also began looking into a CAHOOTS-style program last summer and has engaged community partners on this.

“There’s a lot of interest in what that might look like, that when safe and feasible, could allow a non-uniformed person to be able to respond,” Clark told the council.

In June, he said, the city began deploying a “lightweight” version of CAHOOTS with a liaison who works with local community partners like Milestone Recovery.

McQuade, however, said CAHOOTS is a good program but is “plagued with a lack of resources.”

“They could double or triple or quadruple the budget and that would not be wasted spending,” he said.

Another committee recommendation called for officers to go through regularly scheduled bias training. Clark said officers have had biannual bias training since 2018. Additionally, he said the department is partnering with the Cutler Institute and the Roux Institute to get a better, more comprehensive analysis of arrests, summonses, citations, and use-of-force events to see if the department has engaged in disproportionate enforcement. That report is due in March 2022, the chief said.

The report also recommended replacing the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee with a stronger panel with more authority and actual Police Department oversight. PCRS members have unsuccessfully asked for a stronger oversight role.

Last winter, for example, the PCRS asked to place two non-police individuals on the Police Department’s internal use-of-force review committee. Jennings responded with a proposal to appoint one non-officer to the committee. That person would have been selected by the city manager and would have had to go through training by the Police Department. The PCRS rejected that approach.

However, Jennings and Clark last week pointed to that proposal as a good-faith effort to revamp the oversight committee. Clark also said it may be time to revisit the structure of the PCRS, given its role and activities haven’t been revised in the 20 years since it was developed.

McQuade later said notable suggestions in the racial equity report included reducing police patrols in marginalized communities and banning the police use of criminal trespass orders, but Clark “predictably evaded any allegation of racial profiling or racial over-policing and tried to lean into a colorblind defense.”

He said police have the ability to use various tools, including arrests and violence, and the more contact people have with police officers, the more abuses of powers there will be.

“And that’s not something that can be reformed away,” he said. In part, he continued, it requires changing the tools available, and solutions outside the scope of traditional law enforcement.

“If you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” McQuade said. “You will use your tools to solve the problem. We need different tools.”

He said he favors reducing the scope of the Police Department and cutting its budget 50-80 percent. Police should focus on doing “what they’re allegedly good at” in solving crimes, McQuade said, and one way to do that is to massively expand public and mental health services and separate these services from the Police Department.

Lelia DeAndrade and City Councilor Pious Ali, co-chairs of the Racial Equity Steering Committee, could not be reached for comment.

The council is expected to hold another workshop on the racial justice recommendations with Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow, but that session had not been scheduled by Tuesday, Aug. 3.