How many Portland Police officers does it take to check two African American men out? This sounds like the beginning of a lame joke but - in reality - the answer is ten to twelve.
My husband and I happened upon Portland's Gang Enforcement Team action in Northeast Portland around 4:30 p.m. last Saturday. As racial justice advocates concerned with police accountability, we decided to observe and record the action unfolding in front of us. Here is what happened.
We saw two Portland officers (loaded down with weapons) approach two African American men who appeared to be in their mid-to-late 30's. Two cowed men were being frisked on opposite sides of the street. Just as the first pair of cops made contact, four additional police cars rolled up. Officers poured from the cars, tense and taking up space on sidewalks, a parking lot and the roadway between.
All the possessions of both men were searched. The men stood idle and alone as their names were run through the police computers. About 15 community members, including a business owner, collected . watching the police. When, after about fifteen minutes, the first man was released, I asked him for the reason police gave for stopping and searching him. He stated the officer said he observed him participate in a 'hand-to-hand exchange' with the other man. The Gang Unit was sure it was a drug deal. What really happened was a successful, Portland-based recording artist had given fifty cents to a brother in need.
As things wound down I spoke with Officer Chris Burley.
When I asked why it takes a dozen officers to conduct a potential gang enforcement stop, Burley responded that studies show that it is safer to conduct these types of stops with the entire unit. He stated that when one team conducts a stop, all the other members of the Unit show up on scene. On duty were nine Unit members and the Sergeant-in-charge. Two cops from Eugene were on loan for training. Though Sgt. Ken Duilio offered me his business card without request, I couldn't help wondering whether he also offered his card to the two men they had just stopped and searched. He hadn't. (Portland police must provide a business card to all who request.)
While Officer Burley was very open in explaining this type of community contact followed his training, he also reluctantly agreed that - from a community perspective - a dozen heavily armed Gang Enforcement officers looks like an occupation by an invading army. I would like to see the studies that show that over-policing African Americans in this manner actually makes either the community or the officers safer.
Members of the public may want to ask, "Is this massive rollout a good use of limited public safety dollars?" I say it is not. I also suspect those gathered saw this 'non-arrest' as an intrusion on the community. I want to encourage each of you to pause, observe and record police stops that you see. When police conclude their initial duties, you may want to engage them in secondary responsibilities of community policing.
You may have the same questions I had. Asking your questions models to the store owner, his clerk and those who gathered, that police behavior does not go unchecked in the neighborhood. You may want to spend a moment with those who are putting their belongings back in order after such an encounter with police. Those in the dominant culture may not understand the shame your African American brothers and sisters have just experienced . until you spend a moment with those whose lives have been upended under false pretenses. Let's keep community members safe from overzealous policing practices. It's no joke that pretext stops affect people of color in ways others can only dimly imagine.