Potentially Definitely raising eyebrows among police accountability advocates, Mayor Charlie Hales today announced a curious new hire: He's asking a longtime police officer, Deanna Wesson-Mitchell, to serve as a senior policy director in charge of overseeing the Portland Police Bureau.
Wesson-Mitchell, after serving nine years as a Portland cop, will take over for the recently retired Baruti Artharee, a well-respected African American community leader.
Artharee, an outsider, had taken the job to help Hales reckon with one of his signature campaign issues: shaking up the police bureau in light of a federal investigation that not only found our cops use unconstitutional force against the mentally ill but also raised questions about the bureau's relations with the city's black community.
Wesson-Mitchell, of course, is an insider. She comes with high praise from both her former boss, Chief Mike Reese, and her former union president, Daryl Turner of the Portland Police Association. Both lavished kind words, in a release supplied by Hales' office, on the hire of a new sparring partner whom each had formerly held sway over.
“We are very pleased that the mayor’s office has selected Deanna for this important role,” Reese said. “I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for the work Deanna has done at the Police Bureau. In addition to being an excellent police officer, in her recent role in the Personnel Division, she has assisted the bureau in recruiting and hiring diverse officer candidates. She has also been a member of the Community and Police Relations Committee and taken an active role in helping the bureau with issues regarding equity.”
That was echoed by Officer Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association. “I think she’d be a wonderful addition to the mayor’s staff. I look forward to working with her,” Turner said.
Hales' release took pains to mention, however, some of the difficult work Wesson-Mitchell has done while working as an officer—the message being Wesson-Mitchell is hardly some grunt rank-and-file officer who took orders and that was all.
After years of working as an investigative officer and patrol officer, she's been in the bureau's personnel division, helping the very white cop shop add some diversity to its new hiring classes. She's also been visible in sensitive efforts aimed at introducing the concept of "equity" to the bureau: working on the bureau's old racial profiling committee and serving as a member of the city's Community and Police Relations Committee, a group that meets under the auspices of the Human Rights Commission.
At one CPRC meeting I attended last year, Wesson-Mitchell notably defended Reese's decision to fire Ron Frashour, the cop who shot and killed Aaron Campbell, and the city's efforts to keep him from returning to work. She spoke up even as other officers on the panel expressed their dismay at the city's efforts.
“I am very excited to continue the equity work began in the police bureau two and a half years ago,” Wesson-Mitchell said in Hales' release. “We have made forward progress and, with support of the Mayor’s office, will continue to build capacity and specific skills, which promote equity in both service to Portland’s diverse communities and internal operations.”
She earned $78,990 last year as a cop.
I've reached out to accountability advocates for any comments, concerns, or cheers, and I'll update when I hear back.
Update 12:30 PM: Jo Ann Hardesty, former state representative and current member of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform's steering committee, said she was "disappointed" and "pretty appalled" by the choice.
Hardesty, a critic and observer of the bureau's work on improving its racial awareness, said it's not enough that Wesson-Mitchell was a member of the CPRC (which Hardesty has criticized as too police-friendly). First and foremost, she's a police officer now tasked with overseeing other police officers.
"That sends the message that the status quo is okay," Hardesty says. "How does that work? You hire a police officer to provide oversight of mandated federal changes that are about people's constitutional rights? Who's the best person to do that? An insider? If she had not been working to maintain the status quo, she wouldn't be a police officer now. We're about changing the culture of the Portland police."
Hardesty also wondered if Hales' office was thinking cynically, that it would be enough to replace Artharee with another person of color.
"Just because she has a black face doesn't make her a community member," Hardesty says.///end update
Update 1:30 PM: Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch pointed me to Copwatch's write-up of a 2011 CPRC meeting where the group's racial profiling work was discussed—and where Wesson-Mitchell featured prominently. Handelman also emailed his thoughts about Wesson-Mitchell's ability to boss around her old bosses.
It is of great concern to have a rank-and-file officer in the position of directing policy for her most recent boss, and at that a boss in a para-military organization. While it is true she comes from the community in Portland and has stood up for diversity and against racism in the ranks (and spoken up for female cops, too), it's hard to know whether she can push the Chief and the Bureau in her new role in the way that is needed to address the longstanding issues of corruption, brutality and racism. While cleaning up the cop shop internally is a key component of providing an accountable police force, dealing with how the cops treat people on the streets has to happen at the same time.
Update 1:50 PM: Dana Haynes, Hales' spokesman, said the mayor "definitely" thought about the looming criticism if he hired a sworn officer to a political post overseeing the police bureau, "even in the context of the diversity programs Deanna has been involved in."
Haynes, however, says his boss "is convinced this is the right person at the right time to take on these issues." He said Hales' eyes "lit up" when Wesson-Mitchell, in interviews, spoke of how she wanted to make sure the bureau was strong not just now but over the next 20 years, because "my children live here."
"He said, 'Wow, that's great,'" Haynes told me.
Haynes said Wesson-Mitchell can return to her rank at the bureau if she comes back within the next three years. He said he didn't have an answer when asked if the office fretted over that potential conflict. But when asked if Hales, overall, was convinced Wesson-Mitchell would be able to stand up to her old boss, Reese, and dictate the will of her now boss as needed.
"Yes," he said.///end update
For the full release from Hales' office, including Wesson-Mitchell's background info, hit the jump. She's the second new policy director hired this month by Hales. State Senator Jackie Dingfelder officially joins Hales' staff next month.
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