Racial equity panel to Portland council: Limit role of Police Dept.

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Two months after receiving the final report from the Racial Equity Steering Committee, Portland city councilors and staff briefly discussed the panel’s recommendations in a June 28 workshop.

They made plans for further discussion in another workshop on July 27. At that time, Mayor Kate Snyder said, there will be more opportunities to ask questions and more in-depth discussion.

Monday’s workshop overlapped with the first meeting of the city’s new Charter Commission, which seemed to be the reason for the City Council’s speedy 90-minute session.

Lelia DeAndrade co-chaired the Portland Racial Equity Steering Committee.

Councilors accepted the 67-page report from the committee in April. It recommends several changes to city operations, including an alternative to police response in some emergency situations. The document was the culmination of more than eight months and 25 meetings for the 13-member ad hoc panel.

Committee facilitator Samaa Abdurraqib presented the report to councilors along with Lelia DeAndrade, the committee’s co-chair. The report is divided into three areas of examination: Law Enforcement and the Criminal Justice System, Public Safety and Area Agencies, Organizations, and Nonprofits, and City Policies, Structures and Procedures.

A major recommendation in the law enforcement section is the implementation of an Alternative Crisis Response Model. Abdurraqib said the committee began by examining the CAHOOTS model, which originated in Eugene, Oregon, and stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets. 

Abdurraqib said the committee felt the Portland Police Department’s role is currently too broad, particularly in response to mental health crises, substance use-related incidents, and incidents related to homelessness.

Councilor April Fournier asked if police have taken steps to implement an alternative model, or if the city would be starting from “ground zero.” Councilor Tae Chong also asked if Portland’s existing alternative model, which he noted is seen as a “best model” by other cities, is not working.

Abdurraqib said the committee felt strongly that whatever the alternative model is, it should be separate from the Police Department, and described the alternative model offered by Portland police as simply a social worker housed in the department. 

DeAndrade said while Portland’s current model may be seen as a “best practice” within policing, the committee was trying to address “dynamics within communities of color and how traumatizing experiences with police can be.”

“It’s fabulous that the Police Department wants to create this model but … it’s very difficult for people who are in distress to respond to situations where police officers show up,” she said.

Instead, DeAndrade added, the committee would prefer to employ a separate organization with people who are “highly skilled in conflict resolution” to report to some incidents first. If the situation were to escalate, then police could be brought in.

Councilor Belinda Ray noted police in April introduced an alternative model that she said was similar to CAHOOTS, but was unclear if the alternate forces were to be housed in the Police Department or the Health and Human Services Department.

Ray also asked about how funding would factor in if an outside organization was brought on in addition to that program, noting “if the city has a role, the city will keep it funded,” but money to pay a nonprofit from other sources could run out.

Abdurraqib said the committee’s research found many programs elsewhere were funded through community grants. Snyder requested funding be discussed at the next meeting and said she believes funding for CAHOOTS is available in the fiscal 2022 budget.

“We were very intentional about not getting into a deep discussion about how you would finance this,” DeAndrade said, noting she felt it was beyond the committee’s scope. “You will not hear us talking about where you can put this in your budget.”

The committee also recommended police have regular racial equity assessments by outside consultants, that officers be screened for personal prejudices such as racism, sexism, white supremacist beliefs, or homophobia.

It also recommended creating better tracking systems for police conduct, which would include an external review process for complaints and giving special attention to officers who are recipients of multiple complaints.

Committee members also recommended the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee be dissolved and replaced with a “more equitable and accountable” committee.

Abdurraqib said dissolving the PCRS is important because limitations on who can serve on the panel are roadblocks, and because the PCRS receives cases after personnel decisions have already been made.

“It felt like that committee did not have any actual capacity to hold anyone accountable,” she said.

The committee also recommended a mandate to reduce the number of police patrols in communities predominantly inhabited by people of color and other marginalized groups. Members also recommended the city trust local activists and organizers to act as “credible public safety messengers.”

Councilor Andrew Zarro asked what forging that collaboration would look like, noting “trust is an issue” between activists and the city.

DeAndrade responded the approach is evolving, but the goal is to have the city engage with community members in a way that will “feel like a level playing field” and create an open dialogue.

Committee members also discussed community policing and how it can be difficult to implement in minority communities. Ray called the issue “one of the toughest nuts to crack.”

“I think if we can figure this out, it’s a win for the community and for the police because the police are called far too often for things that they shouldn’t be handling,” she said.

The committee also made recommendations regarding diversity in city hiring, affordable housing, and policy changes, among other issues.

When asked about which sections of the report are priorities, Adburraqib said most of the committee’s energy was directed towards policing recommendations, but DeAndrade said all of the recommendations are equally important. 

DeAndrade had said earlier she encourages people to embrace the idea that racial inequities are not perpetrated by “bad people.” 

“They’re produced and reproduced and reinforced by systems that have been in place for 600 years,” she said. “So we want to move past the guilt and the defensiveness and recognize that our goal is to pull the threads out of this fabric of racial disparity.”

Race is on for Portland City Council, School Board

Potential candidates can now obtain nomination papers for election to the Portland City Council and School Board.

Three seats will be on the Nov. 2 ballot for both the council and School Board.

Nomination papers must be returned to City Hall between Aug. 9 and 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 23.

The council seats are in District 1, where current Councilor Belinda Ray has said she will not seek reelection; District 2, where Councilor Spencer Thibodeau is the incumbent, and the at-large seat held by Councilor Nicholas Mavodones.

School Board member Roberto Rodriguez has already announced he intends to run for the at-large council seat.  

The same seats on the School Board are up for election. The District 1 seat is held by Abusana “Micky” Bondo, the District 2 seat is held by Chairperson Emily Figdor, and the at-large seat is held by Sarah Thompson.

There are also three seats up for election on the Peaks Island Council, and one seat on the Portland Water District Board of Trustees.

The City Council, School Board, and Peaks Island Council seats have three-year terms. The water district term is five years.

Nomination papers can be obtained from the city clerk’s office, Room 24 in the basement of City Hall. Access is from Myrtle Street, and masks are required inside the building.

Candidates for the district seats must gather at least 75 signatures of registered voters, and no more than 150. For at-large candidates, at least 300 signatures and no more than 500 are required. For the Peaks Island Council, at least 50 signatures and no more than 100 are needed. At least 100 signatures, and no more than 150, are necessary for water district candidates.

Additional information is available from the city clerk’s office: 207-874-8677 or [email protected].

— Colin Ellis