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Saturday, September 25, 2010

At the Rally for Police Justice and Accountability

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Sat, Sep 25, 2010 at 6:33 PM

Marching down Broadway.
  • Denis C. Theriault
  • Marching down Broadway.
The sky was hot over Pioneer Courthouse Square this morning. And it couldn't have been more perfect.

More than 100 Portlanders clutching placards and banners and righteous indignation had gathered in the city's so-called "living room" for an event called the Rally for Police Justice and Accountability.

And throughout the event, sponsored by the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, one message flashed again and again: Calls for justice—sparked after a series of excessive-force cases, some tragically fatal—won't be cooling off any time soon.

That message erupted in speech after speech. It flooded the streets of downtown Portland, part of a peaceable march that flowed from the city's so-called "living room," past the Justice Building and the police bureau's headquarters before halting at City Hall.

And it lived on placards and signs and banners. Including a few that served as a grim roll call of police use-of-force, bearing the names of men either shot or beaten to death by officers, men who all were enduring some kind of mental illness: James Chasse, Aaron Campbell, Keaton Otis, and Jack Dale Collins.

"Officers that cross the line must be made to face accountable," thundered the Rev. Dr. LeRoy Haynes, vice president of the Albina Ministerial Alliance. "We stand today as citizens of a united community to say we will not accept it when unarmed citizens like Aaron Campbell can be shot in the back while complying with officers. It is unacceptable to say that James Chasse was beaten to death by the Portland police."

Keep reading to read more about the rally and see more pictures. And, later, stay tuned for video shot by Kevin "the Intern" Otzenberger.

The rally and march come at a time of some hope for the movement. Police union contract talks will now be fully public—a key demand for cop watchers. And Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese have reportedly decided to fire the officer who killed Campbell with a sniper rifle, Ron Frashour—even though an arbitrator is likely to overturn that decision after it becomes official next month.

But that glimmer of progress, other speakers said, is only that. Real change—dispelling the fear and mistrust that linger between police and some citizens—remains far away. That's why, they say, the push must continue.

"There is a moment here where we can make significant steps," said the Rev. Bill Sinkford, senior pastor of the First Unitarian Church downtown and a new voice in the push for police reform.

Jo Ann Bowman, a former state legislator and a community leader on police oversight issues, told the crowd that the decision to open police union talks would never have come without the sustained pressure of outraged Portlanders.

Union talks are particularly important because many of the reforms that remain undone must first be written in officers' labor contract, like allowing Portland's new citizen review board to force officers to answer their questions.

"Trust me when I tell you they didn't do this because they just had an epiphany one day," Bowman said. "No. It took people showing up at the meetings."

And in a city where the vast majority of police contacts involve someone struggling with mental illness, vast gaps in treatment and understanding those issues have yet to be filled. Chasse was suffering from schizophrenia. Campbell was suicidal. Otis' also suffered from a schizoaffective disorder.

"Call up the council to demand mental health treatment," said Chris O'Connor, a public defender speaking on behalf of the Mental Health Association of Portland. "You shouldn't have to commit a crime to get mental health treatment. Let's break that cycle. You actually have to pick up the phone, knock on their door and let them know you care."

Next year, the push for reform will spread to Salem. State Representative Lew Frederick said he had submitted a series of bills meant to address use of force by police officers and improve their training.

Among the proposals: The state would oversee use-of-force probes, not local governments; officers under investigation would be tested for drugs—including steroids; and cops would receive more training on communicating during crisis situations and defusing tension.

"We don't need to wait for a crisis," he said. "We have had way too many crises."

In an incongruent scene later when the march started, it was police officers who found themselves leading the dozens of protesters through downtown's street grid. They were there to block traffic and keep the peace.

At City Hall, before the rally broke apart sometime after 1 p.m. , Bishop A.A. Wells, founder of North Portland's Emmanuel Temple Church, said, "We would be remiss if we didn't thank those officers who accompanied us today. It is important to make clear we are in support of those officers who have not engaged in any of these acts we are speaking of today."

Outside City Hall.
  • Photos by Denis C. Theriault
  • Outside City Hall.

Police escort.
  • Police escort.

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