Randy Leonard: Civil Rights Champion

Chip Shields

"Commissioner Leonard had no problems excluding drug offenders from high-risk areas. He just thought they should be convicted first."

Randy Leonard: Civil Rights Champion

When you think Randy Leonard, you might think labor advocate. You might think firefighter. You might think blues fan. But one of the great untold stories of his 10 years on City Council was how Commissioner Leonard came to see the city's exclusion zones downtown and in my northeast district as a gross violation of civil liberties and civil rights, and how he steered the city's public safety approach to be fairer and more effective.

Since 1992, the city's exclusion zone ordinance, now deceased, implemented a legal maze that allowed people to be excluded from large swaths of the city without first being convicted. Those excluded could then be arrested for criminal trespass if they returned to the zone, which often times was in a zone in which they lived. It's probably no surpise to you that this kind of end-run around the constitution resulted in racial disparity.

In July 2000, an analysis by Scott Learn and Robin Franzen of the Oregonian found that Portland police had routinely excluded people from zones when there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute, which Learn and Franzen said went well beyond the law’s original purpose: keeping accused dealers from returning to the street while awaiting trial. For 28 of the exclusions reviewed by The Oregonian, Learn and Franzen stated officers had no physical evidence or admission of guilt.

Learn and Franzen found that the appeals process was used infrequently. When it was, officers paid little attention to rulings and "Exclusions overturned by city hearings officers for shaky evidence were startlingly similar to other unchallenged exclusions that officers issued months later."

Most importantly, it found that minorities got a majority of exclusions issued by police. In 1999 and the first half of 2000, African-Americans received 45 percent of those exclusions, whites 33 percent and Latinos 20 percent.

According to The Oregonian, a 2007 study by the City of Portland found, "African Americans arrested for qualifying drug crimes are significantly more likely to get exclusions than whites arrested for the same crimes." It also found that "People selling or possessing cocaine are far more likely to get exclusions than people selling or possessing methamphetamine."

Commissioner Leonard had no problems excluding drug offenders from high-risk areas. He just thought they should be convicted first.

Commissioner Leonard convinced Mayor Potter and Council to look to increase public safety in ways that would protect the constitution and in ways that wouldn't exacerbate minority overrepresentation in the criminal-justice system. He then helped develop a model of treatment nicknamed Project 57, whereby the city would pay for jail beds for the highest-risk drug offenders. It has come under some criticism by civil liberties advocates, but nonetheless, it was more targeted than the wide net exclusion zones casted.

Robert F. Kennedy once said, "The poor man accused of crime has no lobby." Commissioner Leonard had the guts to be a civil rights champion on the exclusion zone issue.

I hope his successor will have the same courage to protect the constitution and the courage to look for more effective ways to increase public safety. Thanks for your work Randy. You will be missed.

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    Randy has always been my second favorite Commissioner, and most favorite since Erik Sten left. (Granted, I've only been back to OR since Randy was elected, so I can't speak to Hales or Clark or many others over the decades). He has a real knack for ignoring political pressure and doing what he thinks is just and correct. I don't ALWAYS agree, but for the most part did. And anyone with the stones to take on Ted Pappas and his nasty little enterprises (among other scofflaws), is A-1 by me. He was the first and often only Commissioner to recognize what a sweet deal and amazing opportunity it was to work with Merritt Paulson on the Timbers. It's early, but the haters look pretty foolish so far.

    The only thing better than Randy Leonard in that seat, is...well, you can probably guess who I favor. :)

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