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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Council Okays Report on Gun Ordinances' Racial Impact

Posted by Nathan Gilles on Wed, Jul 18, 2012 at 2:44 PM

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This morning, the Portland City Council unanimously approved the findings of a committee in charge of studying the effects of Mayor Sam Adams’ 2010 gun ordinances—setting aside concerns raised by committee and community members that the centerpiece of the laws, exclusions for gun criminals, might be disproportionately affecting black Portlanders.

As the Mercury reported Monday, those concerns revolve around so-called hotspots drawn up by the city—places where, historically, gun violence has occurred—and an exclusion process that keeps folks convicted of gun crimes out of those hotspots. So far, according to a report by the oversight committee watching the implementation of ordinances, African Americans are being excluded far more than any other ethnic group.

Of the 42 people charged with or convicted of gun crimes, and then excluded, 36 are black. So it would appear that blacks are disproportionately being targeted or profiled by the exclusion process. Not so, says the oversight committee, laying out a line of thinking that was ultimately accepted by the Portland City Council.

Referring to “an awful surge” in gun crimes, Mayor Sam Adams said the committee’s work represented, “the best example of oversight” and had thoroughly examined any intentional or unintentional racism in the exclusion process.

Following similar statements made in their study, committee members testified in council today that the reason blacks represent a disproportionate number of excluded individuals is because black communities are more likely to be affected by gun violence associated with gangs. And because the Portland Police Bureau’s gang unit is currently the only unit enforcing the new gun ordinance—this will change with time—well, that’s why so many black Portlanders are being excluded.

"Gun violence affects a disproportionate number of Africans Americans in our committee and nation wide," said committee head Mike Verbout.

Verbout told the council, “black-style” gangs prefer guns—Latino gangs prefer knifes, and white thugs prefer baseball bats and their fists. Therefore, because gangs were the first targets of the gun ordinance, it makes sense that blacks are being excluded more than other ethnic groups, because black gangs have the guns. Verbout was also quick to say this was not due to any overt or covert racism on the part of the cops, and that there were, "no signs of disparity” in the exclusion process.

Explanations aside, the committee still had the troubling problem that their report did say black Portlanders were predominantly the ones being excluded. To that, Verbout offered a wait-and-see promise, that the committee fully expected to see the types of people excluded to diversify as more police units got in on the action.

Dan Handelman from Portland Copwatch however, told the council he’s concerned that black Portlanders are being profiled for exclusion.

"There seems to be a lot of twisting and turning by the committee as to why there's a disproportionate number of African Americans," Handelman told the council. Handelman went on to say he thought the committee’s data seemed “anecdotal.”

Becky Straus from the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon also had concerns about the committee’s data, agreeing that the data on gang violence used seemed anecdotal.

"Without more data,” said Straus, “I'm having a hard time—and it looks like the committee is having a hard time—drawing conclusions."

Still, the council approved the committee’s finding, citing their concerns about rising summer gang violence, which is, in fact, happening. Several commissioners also praised the committee for its good work and its concern for civil liberties.

After the meeting, Handelman said he remains unconvinced by the committee’s findings.

“If we assume that they are not racially biased,” said Handelman, “which might or might not be the case, when they make their arrests, why—if 52 percent of the gun arrests citywide are African American—are 86 percent of people excluded African American? I’m not a statistician, but those numbers seem weird.”

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