The City of Portland is seeking proposals from outside groups to oversee a long-awaited Truth and Reconciliation Commission addressing the Portland Police Bureau’s historic mistreatment of communities of color.
The request for proposals comes more than a year after Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler approved a plan developed by the Portland Committee for Community-Engaged Policing. The committee is a community group mandated by the 2014 settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice in response to the bureau’s pattern of using excessive force against people in mental health crisis.
After Wheeler approved the plan in October 2020, the city council allocated $250,000 to support the commission.
As part of the work, the city says it is looking for a company or companies to lead the community and the police department through a process “that will bring to light the truth about the history of racism in the city of Portland, the role the Portland Police Department has historically played in perpetuating this racism and in a process of reconciliation that seeks to begin the long road to healing for all parties.
The office of Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty took on the task of drafting the details of the project. Hardesty Community Justice Organizer Andre Miller has used programs in several other cities and countries, including Greensboro, North Carolina, Ferguson, Missouri, Boston, Philadelphia, Peru and Rwanda as models for drafting the outline of the plan proposed by Portland.
The outside organization that wins the contract will be responsible for preparing the city council and police office for the truth-telling process, then leading that process with the community as well as creating a public record of the results. Finally, the group will facilitate a community healing process “resulting in an artistic expression of their healing journey.”
“For this process to be successful, it will need to be conducted independently of the Portland City Council,” said Matt McNally, communications strategist for Hardesty.
McNally said the council had done the work of setting the parameters for the commission, but to be successful it needed to be independent.
Wheeler did not respond to the OPB’s request for comment, but was excited about the plan after endorsing the plan from the police committee engaged on Oct. 14, 2020.
“In recognition of the trauma inflicted on BIPOC communities in Portland at the hands of the Portland Police Bureau, I support an acceleration of the plan to launch a truth and reconciliation commission,” Wheeler said at the time.
Similarly, Police Chief Chuck Lovell has previously backed the commission, saying it could be a catalyst for moving forward as a community and that the police bureau has an important role to play.
While police leaders may be supportive, the union is definitely not. In April, after reviewing the request for proposals, Portland Police Association President Aaron Schmautz sent a letter to city council saying the plan is based on 2018 data and the community is calling for the city to rebuild the police Office. Schmautz said spending a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayers’ money on this process “would shock the conscience.”
“The RFP presupposes something incorrect – that PPB is racist,” Schmautz wrote in his letter.
Schmautz included Oregon’s 2021 report on racial disparities in police stops as evidence that Portland police officers do not harbor racial bias. This report, however, found that Portland police searched and stopped black people during traffic stops more often than white people in identical circumstances.
The police bureau’s own data showed black people made up 18% of traffic stops in 2019, but only 5.8% of the population. The discrepancy was even greater for non-moving violation checks, a category where officers have more leeway. The disparity was so great that it prompted Wheeler to order the bureau to only arrest drivers who pose an immediate danger to public safety.
Truth and reconciliation commissions, however, are not limited, historically, to dealing with the current situation. A 2004 commission in Greensboro, North Carolina, examined the impact of a 1979 Ku Klux Klan and US Nazi Party attack on racial justice protesters that killed five people. And in Maine, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to give a voice and establish a fuller story of the Wabanaki people who had been implicated in the state’s child welfare system.
The seemingly impassable chasm of trust between the people of Portland and their police goes back decades. In 1936, Portland police arrested anti-fascists protesting a visiting German warship wearing a swastika. Two officers were fired after dumping dead possums on the steps of a black-owned business in 1981 and police bureau captain Mark Kruger was suspended in 2010 after discovering he had built a memorial to the soldiers Nazis at Rocky Butte Park. All three officers had their discipline overturned and returned to work. Kruger remained in office until his retirement in March 2020.
Two months after his retirement, the trust gap between the community and the police was further widened as officers responded to protests following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police with night after night of violent enforcement tactics crowds.
Schmautz did not respond to a request for comment.
Proposals must be submitted to the city by November 14, 2022, and work is expected to begin in May.