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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Novick, Fish Lead Council Pushback Against "Troubling" Gun Exclusion Reports

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Sep 25, 2013 at 12:29 PM

The Portland City Council this morning reluctantly approved an oversight committee's report on Portland's controversial gun-crime exclusion zones, but only after demanding more information and pledges for outreach—and calling the panel's justification for the seemingly disparate treatment of African Americans "thin gruel."

None of the city commissioners took one of the report's central findings in stride: Of all the suspected gun criminals banned from the city's three gun exclusion "hotspots," 83 percent are African American. (Portland's black population is between 5 percent and 10 percent.) That discomfort, and the demands for change it sparked, were a marked change from the past two times, in 2011 and 2012, the committee brought similarly disparate numbers forward.

Previously, the council had taken at face value the oversight committee's (and the police bureau's) admitted reliance on anecdotal evidence to justify those numbers and even call them a decisive good thing for the city's African American community. The committee members, who work closely with cops and prosecutors, point to a higher percentage of African American gang members in Portland (55 percent) but go further to claim that "black-style gangs" are way more likely to use guns than other ethnic gangs.

This time, that didn't sit so well. City Commissioner Steve Novick led the way in demanding hard numbers to better back up the committee's claim, calling the report's findings, and the lack of rigor, "troubling."

"When we see an exclusion percentage that so much higher than the percentage of victims and offenders of gun crimes in general, how can we feel satisfied that's not the result of disparate treatment?" Novick asked at one point. "Any additional non-anecdotal evidence would be helpful."

Later, after the council started voting on the report—adopting a suggestion by Commissioner Nick Fish that the committee come back later this year with a plan to address concerns—Novick dropped velvet-dressed threat. (Though it was Fish who called the committee's justifications "thin gruel.")

"Without a really good explanation that goes beyond anecdotal concepts," he warned, "you have to reconsider a program with that rate of disparate impacts."

Novick's remarks were welcomed by civil liberties and police accountability advocates—who'd been raising the same concerns since before last year's report found similar disparities.

Becky Straus, the Portland lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, thanked Novick for his remarks. She said the council should consider whether the hotspots are making people safer—to the point that it's worth potentially depriving someone of liberties. She also wondered about the status of a recommendation last year that would shift the power to hand out exclusions from cops to judges.

"The story that these reports are telling me is not really answering those important questions for me," she said, adding "even with anecdotal evidence, that may start to explain the disparity, these are very huge numbers."

Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman objected to the report's use of "black-style gangs" as a sign of bias. He also wondered why many of last year's recommendations were left to drop until coming back this year. Handelman said he'd participated in the oversight committee's monthly meetings at the police bureau's North Precinct but was disturbed to see his input missing from the report.

"Maybe there's too much to do and too few people to work on it," he said, noting the police bureau remains mired in the fallout of a federal lawsuit over its treatment of people with mental illness. "This is part of a pattern of bias-based policing, and it has to stop."

Sergeant Cathe Kent, the police bureau's gun enforcement leader, tried to soothe commissioners. So did prosecutors Eric Zimmerman and Chuck Sparks. All three, plus Ron Jackson, who's currently the police bureau's only statistician, advise the panel.

Sparks said not to worry about the disparate numbers of exclusions, since judges ultimately throw out exclusion orders if the gun charges behind the orders don't result in an conviction.

Mike Verbout, the committee's chairman, offered to set commissioners straight. He said it wasn't as if the disparity wasn't of concern. He said the members spent the past few years grappling with the implication of the statistics. He also said that they were hopeful that a recent change in the exclusion process—letting all cops issue exclusions, instead of just gang cops—would bring the disparity down.

"We've been troubling with these and continue to trouble over them," he says. "We are not the kind of people who will rest until we get to the answers you're looking at, because we want those answers as well."

The council wasn't shy about offering some thoughts on how to keep looking.

Fish, in suggesting what might happen next, acknowledged that the panel ought to get more help with number-crunching—a problem bureauwide amid cutbacks. He suggested a city attorney should also help advise the panel on civil liberties issues. Commissioner Amanda Fritz suggested the panel maybe hold some meetings at night, instead of once a month on a Tuesday morning. She urged they create an email account where community members can directly share concerns.

Mayor Charlie Hales, who inherits the zones from former Mayor Sam Adams and oversees the police bureau, will take point on pushing for an update and then an improved report. In his comments, he tried to strike a difficult balance, reflecting his position.

"It appears these ordinances are having a positive effect in preventing more serious crimes. That's good. And we want to focus on both individuals and areas where danger is greatest. That appears to be successful as well," he said. "But we don't want to profile. We want to focus and not profile. that's the line everyone wants to stay on the right side of."

Fritz was a bit more blunt. She said it's been great how the police bureau pays more attention to disparities involving mental illness. However...

"We still have a lot of work to do on how we do things with respect to racial bias."

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