Portland’s Failure to Build Trust Among Police and Communities

These days, we keep a list of all the people killed by police in recent memory, mostly people of color.  There is also, surely, a list of police officers killed.  Will our polarized society start comparing the number of names in each list rather than the tragedy of the total number?   Every person on lists like these had parents, friends, coworkers and family.  And so the number of those left to endure the pain and loss of these losses is much greater than the lists show.

But the damage doesn’t stop there. People who have never met these victims or their loved ones relate the events to their own circumstances and experiences of powerlessness, victimization, fear or anger. These folks may form mental generalities in which bad cops, vigilantes and zealots become representatives of entire races, religions and social roles. When the deaths become more symbolic than personal, a response of hurting those labelled as “the other” becomes more justified.

Here in Portland, thanks to the work of the U.S. Department of Justice, we have a framework to work on improving how the city polices itself. It is a self-proclaimed experiment in which police policy changes are to be implemented and the effect of those changes measured. A group of citizens has been brought together to oversee and advise this process. By working together toward improvements, the thinking went, there would be trust-building among police, public officials and members of minority communities that are most vulnerable to police violence.

How’s that going? So far, not so good.

The data seems promising and some good policy changes have gone forward. But the public process has been a disaster. To be clear, we haven’t seen the horror of Dallas play out, but the level of hostility toward the process and the Portland police has been evident.

Events in Portland and the nation scream out the need for the city to take the public oversight process seriously. This means that the entire structure, process and staffing of the effort needs to be reviewed by those skilled in community relations, group process and with a deep understanding of the mental health community and communities of color. Those who have been chosen to perform data collection and analysis must not be in charge of the community process. Frankly, they have been given that opportunity and failed.

This is a critical moment in Portland and our nation when it comes to police reform. America, Oregon and Portland have not dismantled the causes and effects of structural racism. We continue to drag our feet in funding and implementing evidence-based crisis services for citizens with behavioral health disabilities. We still insist that police be our mental health crisis managers, along with jails, prisons and overloaded emergency departments. Come on, Portland. We have more than a housing crisis. We have a justified crisis of trust and there are lives on the line.

Let’s get serious.

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